It is difficult to imagine a more dysfunctional, useless and wasteful public institution than the Canadian Senate.
By the time this column goes to press, the auditor general will have released his report into Senate spending, but the broad strokes have already been leaked. The report will detail obscenely wasteful spending of the taxpayer’s money by Canadian Senators. In some instances that spending may have crossed the line into the criminal and several cases have been referred to the RCMP for further investigation.
All of this spending was justified under the nebulous concept of conducting “Senate business.”
This is only the latest chapter in the sordid tale of pigs at a red trough. The shenanigans of Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau are already Canadian political lore. Poor Senator Nancy Ruth recently epitomized Senate entitlement by lamenting the injustice of having to eat the “cold Camembert and broken crackers” served on an airplane while justifying expensing breakfast instead.
Meanwhile the rest of us plebs paid for our own meals.
The Senate’s rot goes much deeper than wasteful personal spending.
The Senate was created at a time when the United Kingdom’s commitment to modern democracy was less developed, and the notion that aristocratic privilege should still be reflected in the institutions of government prevailed. The purpose of the Senate when it was created was to serve as a check by the propertied elite on the democratic “rabble” in the House of Commons.
The Constitution even contained a requirement that every Senator must own at least $4,000 worth of land in the province from which he hailed – a requirement that served to exclude much of the population from eligibility when viewed in 1867 dollars.
As the idea that the wealthy should enjoy greater (formal) influence in government fell out of fashion and inflation rendered the $4,000 requirement less of an obstacle, the Senate’s purpose morphed to justify its continued existence. It was to serve as a body of “regional representation” and “sober second thought.”
It continues today only because of the great Canadian constitutional quagmire.
Although it boggles the mind of those less familiar with the arcane procedures for changing the Canadian Constitution – who just ask “why can’t we get rid of it?” – the legal and political reality is that we’re probably stuck with this farce of an institution for the foreseeable future.
Canada’s Constitution has been stuck in a rut for many years. The last substantial changes came into force more than 30 years ago.
We are a country of 10 provinces, three territories, and hundreds of aboriginal groups; each with their own views, interests and ambitions. The 10 provinces which actually have a formal say in any changes to the Constitution vary widely in their vision for the future of the country.
The failures of the Meech and Charlottetown accords in the 1980s and 1990s respectively – where Ottawa bent over backwards in an attempt to secure the approval of the provinces – have dampened our country’s appetite for constitutional reform.
Even though both the government and the Official Opposition have expressed a willingness to do away with the Red Chamber, they would need the agreement of the provinces, and therein lies the problem. Even some relatively minor (albeit misguided) tweaks introduced by the Harper government were shot down by the Supreme Court of Canada because they didn’t have the required amount of provincial consent.
Canada’s two largest provinces have no interest in abolition or reform for reasons that frankly escape me. If there is blame to be laid for our continued subjection to the whims of this pathetic institution it lies plainly at the feet of the governments of Ontario and Quebec. The Atlantic provinces bear some of the blame as well. Those provinces have more seats in the House of Commons than their populations could justify because of a constitutional quirk providing that no province shall have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it does in the Senate.
It is not that the Senate hasn’t had its moments of lucidity. The Le Dain Commission of Inquiry into the Non-Medical Use of Drugs had more sensible things to say on the futility of using the criminal law to stamp out drug use than just about any member of Parliament in the history of the Commons. And that was way back in 1972.
But it is hard to imagine why we need a stand-alone parliamentary body to produce reports. Certainly there are better ways to study issues that with all the pomp and ceremony of a Senate filled with 105 political appointees, each making $142,400, which apparently isn’t enough to cover the cost of breakfast as in the case of Senator Ruth, or your own home in the case of Mike Duffy.
And the Senate has occasionally exercised its “theoretical” powers and interfered in the people’s business as well. This unelected body has seen fit from time to time, either through delay or flat-out rejection, to override the democratic will of Canadians as expressed, however imperfectly, through the House of Commons. The fate of the Reform Act – legislation passed by the House of Commons to limit the power of party leaders – is a recent example. As the editorial in this paper noted recently, the Senate is on the verge of killing this badly needed legislation.
An undemocratic body killing legislation aimed at improving the health of our democracy. What a spectacle.
The Senate is a stain on our countries status as a democracy, a waste of the taxpayer’s money, and as this latest saga has revealed, a body imbued with a culture of entitlement. The sooner we can get rid of it the better.
Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.