Senate scandal: Reforming the upper house an unlikely proposition

David T Jones
Sen. Mike Duffy arrives at the Senate on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013. NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says Sen.Duffy has directly implicated the prime minister in the Senate expense scandal.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

The ongoing imbroglio over the Canadian Senate has more facets than a kaleidoscope. With every twist a new pattern appears to emerge — only to disappear into dissonance with the next turn of events.

One hesitates to put a (premature) label to it:

  • A molehill on its way to becoming a mountain? Or a media extravaganza driven by an absence of interest in real politico-social issues?
  • An analogue to a Nixonian-style Watergate featuring “What did you know and when did you know it” testimony questioning?
  • A stimulus for defining reform of the Senate?

We can be sure, however, that the extended parliamentary recess and a “reset” Throne Speech have failed to throw sufficient lime into the Senate cesspool to kill the stench.

The Throne Speech was a three-day wonder that has promptly passed from the minds of even those initially paying attention. Instead, it is all-Senate-all-the-time:

  • Who gave Senator Duffy how much money to do what?
  • Who do you believe in the the PM Harper or Senator Duffy “he said; he said”?
  • Why did Senator Wallin charge so much travel to the public purse?
  • Where did Senator Harb actually live and what were his expenses?
  • And why the RCMP hasn’t contacted Senator Brazeau?

Nevertheless, there is a sense this Gang of Four is a collage of scapegoats rather than a band of miscreants. Circumstances are such they can honestly say “Everybody did it” and have such pleas believed, albeit not forgiven. These are individuals who never got into a cold car in winter; were comped, gifted, escorted and feted for years, if not decades. Their expense accounts were unquestioned and/or perfunctorily examined. And so they behaved in the Senate.

And now, just as a “third-rate burglary" at Washington’s Watergate destroyed a presidency, observers can imagine that efforts to manage opaque financial problems could destroy the Harper government.

Probably the Halloween-scary concern for their fellows is the ongoing audit, a circumstance unleashed by Senator LeBreton presumably both to scare prospective critics into line and to tar Liberals with the brush they were wielding so vigorously against Tories. Instead, one senator privately declared her a “suicide bomber” who would destroy the institution in the process. One can easily conclude the investigations will conclude from political fatigue rather than an absence of further targets.

Consequently, it is useful to recall that all of the senators now squirming in the limelight were reasonably well-regarded for respectable personal/professional careers prior to appointment. Certainly, there was no equivalent to Caligula’s appointment of a horse to the Roman Senate. Instead, I conclude they stumbled into the maelstrom of recession-driven public dissatisfaction with the rich and powerful. It is akin to the sense in the United States that less than 10 percent of the electorate believes Congress is doing a good/excellent job and pollsters hearing a majority of the country would replace every member of Congress, even their own representative. No politician is getting a pass today.

[ U.S. debt crisis: Three-month extension is merely a re-loading break ]

But beneath the breathless clamor there are some existential issues for the Senate:

The Senate epitomizes neither-fish-nor-fowl circumstances. It has real constitutional powers (Canadians should read their founding documents to appreciate the enormous power the Senate legally holds) but is terrified to use them. As democracy has permeated Western political systems, an unelected, appointed major parliamentary body lacks legitimacy. One cannot say that if the Senate wielded its constitutional powers and persistently thwarted the House that rioting Canadians would hang senators from the Peace Tower. But neither can one hypothesize that there would be no public/political reaction; indeed, Canada would probably face a political crisis. And the Senate, largely wishing to preserve its prerogatives and pleasures, has no interest in forcing its technical powers into destructive political confrontations.

The Senate has no constituency. It is purely a creature of prime ministerial appointments; these can drift for decades after the individual that appointed them has passed from the scene. There is no electorate to which a senator can appeal; not even a socio-economic group interested in a particular senator. Senatorial appointment is akin to a larger and more profitable Order of Canada. It is a final reward for being a good and loyal bag man/woman or a partisan that can be depended upon to toe the line delivered from the head of the party.

As such it is an anomaly Canadians can recognize but are unable to address effectively, given the constitutional and political restraints on action.

So shout and pout, but live it out.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.