Alex Binkley on silent senators

Alex Binkley is a foremost political and economic analyst, whose website is Readers will be aware that his columns in True North Perspective have foreseen political and economic developments in Canada. This week in . . .

The Binkley Report

Senate should break its silence starting with Gang of Four

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective
Image, Senators Brazeau, Harb, Wallin and Duffy  
Honourable Members' Rogues' Gallery:
Senators Brazeau, Harb, Wallin and Duffy.

24 May 2013 — The living expense allowance scandal and the other antics of Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mark Harb have brought a tidal wave of well-deserved ridicule crashing down on the Senate. The chamber of supposed sober second thought has become an object of ridicule for editorial writers and open line hosts to say nothing of coffee shop pundits.

It has claimed Nigel Wright, Prime Minister Harper’s right hand man, and will undoubtedly give Harper political indigestion for weeks to come. In a way, the embarrassment the Conservative Senate appointees have caused is fitting, because Harper promised Senate reform, and then packed the joint with party cronies just like every prime minister before him. The Conservative Senators certainly haven’t done much to raise the institution’s status.

However, what’s most amazing in the whole sad charade is the silence of the other 101 Canadians who sit in the Senate, raking in a mighty handy salary, and the dozens of retired senators who are still active and enjoying their Senate pension.

Not a word in defence of the Senate from any of them as the NDP and a growing number of organizations demand the abolition of the red chamber or at least Duffy’s resignation. These are subjects worthy of debate.

But the real question has to be why the senators — there are 64 Conservatives, 35 Liberals, seven independents including Duffy, Brazeau, Harb and Pamela Wallin and three vacancies — have made no effort to justify the Senate. Could it be they can’t muster a public accounting for the Senate’s importance in Parliament or point to worthy accomplishments? Some will say that it’s just not cricket for one senator to publicly chastise another. But there are much bigger issues here than the misdeeds and egos of the gang of four!

A couple of colleagues note that the Senate has the power to do anything it wants and can summon any Canadian to testify before a committee. Remember when the Royal Bank of Canada was caught with its pants down on the foreign replacement workers issue. Well RBC President and CEO Gord Nixon wasn’t called before the Senate banking or industry committees to explain. That is just the kind of issue the Senate should tackle.

With a few exceptions, the transport committee on airport fees being one, Senate committee deliberations are mostly lily dipping. Like the MPs on the Commons committees, the Senators arrive unprepared and ask rather tame questions. If the Senate lived up to its powers, senior federal officials and cabinet ministers would be apprehensive of appearing before a Senate committee. In reality, it’s a walk in the park on a quiet day or a courtesy call.

If you ask people in Ottawa what senators did something memorable, you might get nominations for Wilbert Keon or Michael Kirby. Kirby headed the Senate committee that examined Canada’s rather poor record of helping people with mental illness. Its work led to the creation of the Mental Health Commission, which produced a landmark report Changing Directions and a growing community engagement in the issue.

Outside of Ottawa, the question mostly draws blank stares, which is unfair because there are a number of men and women who have tried to use their seat in the Senate to tackle difficult subjects. Alas there are many more who settle into the easy lifestyle and coast their way to 75.

There are senators who are unhappy with the bad press the Senate receives. When the allowance fuss broke a few months ago, they acknowledged they had a way to defend the Senate. This would be a good time to start.