Enough Is Enough

A call for Senate reform

• 516 words

Leading by Example

The politics of bullying

Illustration by Jenn Kitagawa
Jenn Kitagawa

The Conservative government is pushing for legislation to quash cyber-bullying. Asked whether it was incongruent for the party to decry bullying while lampooning Justin Trudeau, Stephen Harper advised a journalist not to “confuse democratic debate in politics with crime.” Perhaps, but “democratic debate” may be a misnomer. Noting the dearth of true dialogue, Green Party leader Elizabeth May has complained that the Conservatives are wont to turn “every legitimate question and criticism into a personal attack against the moral character of Opposition members.” Even The Economist labelled Harper a bully. As philosopher Mark Kingwell observes in his book Unruly Voices, political browbeating is insidious: “If we do not repair our political conversation, if we do not demand that elected leaders speak rationally if they want to go on claiming the privilege of representing our interest, then we all lose.”

Brad Dunne

“Upon attaining power we shall without delay enter upon and complete the necessary investigation to guide us as to details; and this investigation will be promptly followed by the requisite legislation.

“It may not become a member of the Commons to criticise too severely the merits or performance of the other branch of the Legislature; but those who have watched with any care the work of our Senate in recent years must be convinced that it is not playing the part which was intended by the framers of our Constitution. There seems little sense of individual responsibility, little desire to grapple with public questions, little disposition for effective work, but intense inclination, and indeed resolve to make its sittings as infrequent and as brief as the barest decency will permit. In saying this I do not overlook important individual exceptions. When one considers the problem to be solved, he is met with the declaration, not easily disproved, that the present method of appointment is sufficiently good if the power were properly exercised. It is beyond question that while some appointments to the Senate by the present Administration have been excellent, a very considerable number have been absolutely improper and even absurd, so that the status, character and tone of that house have notoriously deteriorated since the advent of the Government. The Senate if properly constituted under the present system should be greatly superior to the House of Commons in the chief essentials of a legislative body, and should be one of the main safeguards of our Constitution. It does not occupy that position either in fact or in public estimation. I realize certain possible dangers of an elective Senate, but conditions may force it upon us; and I shall stand for:

“Such reforms in the mode of selecting future members of the Senate as will make that chamber a more useful and representative legislative body.

“It is necessary to add that a constitutional change of such importance could not take place without the consent of every province of the Dominion.”

Robert Laird Borden, MP (1907)

This appeared in the July/August 2013 issue.

  • Gary MacDonald

    Our earnest senators tell us they work hard. For some $140,000 annually they analyze legislation and study public policy. They also sit on corporate boards, are the bag men who raise money for their parties, charge speaking fees, file false expense reports and misuse
    Senate resources.

    Canadians currently have the delight of paying a jailed senator, Raymond Levine, his $79,000 annual pension for the rest of his life. Should the current crowd of miscreants, Wallin, Duffy, Harb and Brazeau, join Levine in jail we will still have to pay their pensions.

    The Canadian political class and their hacks and hangers on have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and the Senate. Each one thinks: maybe one day I will get retired to the Senate. THE SALARY! THE PERKS! THE PENSION!

    Tony Blair, while prime minister, in Britain expelled most of the hereditary peers from the House of Lords. This opened up hundreds of empty seats to which political hangers on could be appointed. When George Brown, after succeeding Tony Blair, made signs he wanted to abolish the House of Lords, he faced a revolt from the political class. Everyone climbing the greasy pole of politics lusted after one of the 816 Lords’ appointments.

    The same is happening in Canada. Mr. Mulcair is of course the only federal politician in favour of abolition. There are no NDP senators and this is maybe the only politically expedient path to power Mr. Mulcair can see. Messrs. Harper and Trudeau just want to find “better” people to be members. A one ring circus has more worth and entertainment value than the Senate. It cost us some $91 million annually. And I see red when I am paying the pension of a senator jailed for fraud and misuse of Senate resources. These people think they are entitled to feed from the public purse. They have no shame,

    Our children will be inheriting a polluted, dying planet and a massive public debt. Do we have to leave them the Senate too?

    Abolish the Senate.

  • Geoffrey Brittan

    Democracy demands suspicion. The framers of our government understood that fundamental fact. Democracy leaves a door open to unbridled populism and an attendant risk that voters may elect a scoundrel, or worse a team of scoundrels.

    Yes, the notion of an appointed body over-ruling an elected one seems offensive today, but the fact remains that our system has checks and balances of which one is the Senate; it isn’t just a check against a government, but democracy too.

    It isn’t surprising that people these days, so influenced by republicanism inherent in American culture, find the notion disturbing, but the Senate is just what it is supposed to be. The notion of reform or abolition is ridiculous.

    The Senate is supposed to function by a collection of cronies and hacks who are supposed to feel somewhat independent of party politics, or an allegiance to the PM who appointed them. Naturally, one assumes that their thankfulness for the perks and pay maintains their loyalty, but thankfully too, politicians are not moral creatures. They are scoundrels, as they are supposed to be.

    The problem isn’t the Senate. The problem is the unwillingness of politically astute observers and pundits to understand the purpose and role of that great institution. It is doing just what it is supposed to do. Our system of government is dependent on several ironies; this is just one of them.

    The underlying assumption is counter intuitive, but true. Democracy rests on power and the natural tendency for it to corrupt decent people. That insight, written so long ago by Baron John Acton (1834-1902), expressed a widely understood political reality in a letter to Bishop Mandell Chreighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “Great men are almost always bad men.”

    Today, people consider such an opinion negative or cynical, but Baron Acton was more right than he knew. A democratically elected, majority government can be just as tyrannical and corrupt as the worst of European monarchs who ruled by war, oppression, and privilege. The institution of the Senate brings balance and essential second thought on legislation passed by the Lower House, which steadies Democracy in uncertain times; at least that was the peculiar notion that the framers of our political system imagined when they envisioned it.