So here’s the deal. We’re going to give you a job that pays an annual salary of $130,000. If you’re coming from more than 100 kilometres away, we’re going to give you $22,000 for living expenses. We’ll put up $161,200 a year to run your private office and hire staff. We’ll throw in a first-class travel allowance you can run up to at least $175,000 a year with a little juggling, and you can share it with family and friends. We’ll top that off with a great pension plan, and free haircuts. All we expect in return is that you work toward abolishing the job.
Officially this is the deal between Stephen Harper and his 58 Senate appointees. The question now is, who had their fingers crossed behind their backs? Harper built his career on the promise: “I will not name appointed people to the Senate.” Now that he is naming appointed people to the Senate, it’s OK because as Conservative Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton tells us, “they all support Senate reform.”
At present counting, 64 out of 105 senators are Conservative, Senate reformers every one. Harper has a majority in the House. So where’s the bill creating that Triple E Senate? The Conservatives’ proposal currently before the Supreme Court calls for relatively tame reforms – eight-year term limits, and the opportunity for provinces to hold elections to nominate appointees, if they choose.
Could it be that as Harper has realized what a royal pain an equal, effective, elected Senate would be, with its own politics, its own agenda, and its own leader? Eight-year term limits and kinda-sorta elections must seem like a far safer option.
Still, term limits do limit terms. If you were planning to ride that gravy train till you turned 75, leaving it, say, 10 years early could be a $2 million kick in the pants. It looks like in the not-distant future those 64 Conservative senators will be faced with the responsibility to vote themselves out of the cushiest job in the country. There’s no empirical evidence to back me on this, but just on a hunch I’m predicting the longest, soberest second thought the upper chamber has ever seen.
The Senate is a child of the 19th century, when democracy was still a dangerous and radical idea. Although only white men of property could vote in any election, it was still a threat to stability for the elected Commons to be in control of the King’s dominion. The Senate existed to oversee democracy and make sure it didn’t overstep its bounds. That’s where the expression “sober second thought” comes from. Appointed by His Majesty, senators had to prove that they were of a certain worth, both in land and capital. A title or knighthood and a luxuriant growth of white whiskers didn’t hurt either.
What function does this 1860s institution have in a modern democracy? It serves as a vehicle for the prime minister to reward the faithful; Conservative Senator Irving Gerstein, with remarkable candor, spoke for a number of his colleagues last year when he told the Senate, “I look back over many years of working as a party bagman.” The Senate is also used as a gold-plated parking lot for political candidates; three of the Conservative senators who resigned to run in the last federal election failed to win a seat, and were immediately reappointed.
The Senate makes a great retirement job for Conservative journalists – even though they’re notoriously clueless when it comes to filling out the necessary forms. Sometimes it even indulges in good old-fashioned sober second thought, like in Black November, 2010, when appointed Conservative senators broke seven decades of democratic tradition by voting down the environment bill passed by the elected House of Commons.
None of these are necessary, or even defensible, functions of an appointed body in a democracy. A democracy has no need of a system to channel public funds into the hands of party bagmen, a place to reward large donors to political parties, or a golden parachute for failed political candidates. Most of all we don’t need another level of Parliament to supercede the elected House of Commons.
In short, we don’t need a Senate. It’s an outdated idea and a huge waste of money. There are many better things the country could do with $90 million a year. Whether they fudge their expenses or not, senators are a disgrace to democracy. The solution is simple. Never mind limiting terms, dump the bums.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.