Senate reform ideas

Senate reform ideas
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It really says something about the sheer uselessness of the Canadian Senate that they can’t even keep an accurate track of how much money their members are stealing.

Senator Mac Harb, a former Liberal who was expelled resigned from his party a couple weeks ago following revelations that he had charged the Senate some $51,282 in undeserved travel and lodging expenses, had his infamy upgraded by several points last week after the Senate’s internal economy committee took a second look at the numbers and determined that no, the figure is actually probably closer to $230,000. And just like that, Senator Harb, previously one of the less offensive characters among the gang of high-profile senators caught with their hands in the fraudulent expense account cookie jar, including Patrick Brazeau ($48,744) Mike Duffy ($90,172.) and Pamela Wallin ($38,000 and counting) is suddenly bumped to first place. What’s particularly charming is that these revised estimates claim Harb actually owes nearly as much in sheer interest ($41,726) on his outstanding ill-gotten claims as he was initially expected to owe overall.

This scandal — the so-called “Senate Expense Account controversy” — continues to loom large in the Canadian papers, and I’ve been on TV a bunch of times attempting to come up with new and clever insights on it. But at the end of the day, it’s really not a very complicated thing, and as the weeks progress it’s getting harder and harder to dredge up any fresh takes. It’s just such an awful, offensive scandal predictably arising from our most awful, offensive political institution. What more can be said?

If you bill your employer for phony expenses or file legit expenses under false pretenses (as Harb did when he dipped into the Senate’s housing and travel allowances for senators who live more than 100 km from parliament, despite his living only 40km away) then you’re basically a thief. I can remember once working at a place where we fired an employee who got caught collecting reimbursements for expenses that were only a couple bucks over the authorized limit — the boss said he was lucky we didn’t call the cops. That’s just how things go in most normal workplaces.

The cops have been called on the rogue Senate gang thankfully, but as I noted in an earlier post, it’s unclear if any jobs will be lost as a result. Canadian senators are appointed by prime ministers for what amount to life terms, and to repeat yet again, they can’t be fired, only impeached following conviction for an indictable offense (which has never happened in Canadian history). Harb will continue to collect his $135,000-a-year salary for the time being, and even if he decides to quit, his ample senatorial pension will surely cushion his fall from grace. But considering he’s recruited a former Supreme Court justice to contest his charges, even that might not be necessary.

Two of the three main political parties in Canada are in favor of Senate reform. The NDP is on an abolishment tour at the moment, while the Tory government of Prime Minister Harper is waiting patiently to hear back from the Supreme Court of Canada on what’s called a “constitutional reference” on Senate reform, which is to say their opinion as to whether or not it would be constitutional for the federal government to unilaterally pass a law forcing Canada’s senators to be subject to elections and term limits.

The Liberal Party, meanwhile, thinks the problem isn’t so much a prime ministerially-appointed senate, but prime ministers who make bad appointments. This was probably an easier case for them to make when the chamber’s most sticky-fingered member appeared to be Conservative Mike Duffy; perhaps a bit harder now that the honor belongs to Harb, a 2003 Jean Chretien appointee. In a similar theme, the long-reigning Liberal parties of Quebec, Ontario, and British Columbia have all consistently refused to undermine the status quo by holding Senate elections (Alberta remains the only province that does) or otherwise press Ottawa to get the ball rolling on any larger cause of reform. And considering the vital role Canada’s provincial governments play in fomenting constitutional change in this country, it’s hard to imagine how anything will get fixed so long as our three biggest regions continue to abdicate their responsibility.

Really, the only conceivable way Canada’s ever going to escape its abusive relationship with its most dysfunctional political institution will be if we get a prime minister (be it Conservative or NDP) who’s willing to put all of the nation’s other business on hold, and just devote 100% of his energy to pitching comprehensive Senate reform all day, every day, for a solid couple of weeks, if not months. The public would have to be whipped into a literal frenzy of anger and outrage over the status quo (which most polls suggest we already are — we just never get a chance to express it), every provincial government would have to be brought under enormous pressure, and there’d have to be some manner of extraordinary national referendum to finally bring definitive closure — whether it was retooling, abolishment, or what — to this tired debate once and for all.

Anything less, well… How’ve the last five years been working out?

How about the last 150?


  1. Kyle

    I'm something of a political junkie. I'm not obsessive, but I follow politics close enough that I usually recognize the names involved in something as esoteric as a cabinet shuffle. I'm certainly no expert, but I have a decent grasp on Canadian politics.

    Or so I thought until the expense scandal drew attention to the senate. Facts as basic as the names of the majority and minority leaders are complete mysteries to me. I don't even know if I'm calling them by the appropriate titles. I realized that I have gained absolutely zero incidental knowledge of the inner workings of the senate in the decade plus I've been following Canadian politics.

    Either the media has been seriously remiss in their duties, or absolutely nothing noteworthy has come out of the senate in more than the decade leading up to this year.

    Kill it with fire.

  2. profanepundit

    "The Liberal Party, meanwhile, thinks the problem isn’t so much a prime ministerially-appointed senate, but prime ministers who make bad appointments."

    That is as it always has been and always will be. Governmental power – regardless of what type of power it is, we it to regulate industry, appoint to the judiciary, levy taxes or WHATEVER – is only bad when it is not in your party's control, and if your party controls it (or may soon) then it must not be diminished.

    What that ignores is that if it is possible to abuse power, regardless of it's form or function, then it will be abused, regardless of what laws or restrictions are placed upon the use of that power.

  3. Kwyjor

    Rather than four smiling candidates brandishing "Vote 4 Me" buttons, I reckon more accurate iconography for an "elected chamber" would be four candidates engaged in some kind of circular-backstabbing maneuver.

    That aside, while the private misappropriation of a few hundred thousand dollars is perfectly reprehensible and wouldn't be at all tolerated in a privately-run business of a certain size, in the grand scheme of politics it seems there are much graver injustices to be concerned with.

  4. @TheInvisibleDan

    I can actually remember once working at a place where we fired an employee who simply tried to file a expense that was only a couple bucks over the authorized limit — the boss said he was lucky we didn’t call the cops.

    This is kinda off-topic, but what exactly happened there? Was each employee authorized to expense (let's say) $100 at a time, and this guy had a (legitimate?) expense that came to $105, and he got fired for submitting that? Or am I missing something?

  5. J.J. McCullough

    Sorry, I wrote this piece kind of quickly and didn't explain this anecdote very well. I rephrased it a bit above. Basically there was a guy who was caught _collecting_ reimbursements that went over the authorized limit. So the argument was that he was stealing, and thus he was fired. Does that seem extreme?

  6. @Cristiona

    "Rouge" senate members? Aren't you a little late for stamping out commies?

  7. Golgot

    it's never too late to strike at the COMMIEunists

  8. Golgot

    Darn, I forgot the exclamation marks.

  9. Guest

    I am so glad I found this cartoon blog otherwise I would have never known about the peculiar Canadian senate.
    Obviously reform is well overdue. Typically it takes monumental outrage to make such major constitutional change – perhaps this scandal will be enough to do it.
    I kinda like the idea of an upper house elected by the entire country with seats allocated in proportion to votes – so, based on the last election the Conservatives would hold about 40% of the seats, NDP about 30%, Libs about 19%, BQ about 6% and Greens about 4%
    The chamber would then be a national chamber and would also encourage small parties with wide appeal who could pick up a seat with just a small % of the vote nation-wide whereas they could never win a seat in the lower house. Sure, this allows for some crazies to get seats but it makes everything so much more interesting. Since you guys have 105 senate seats some wacky group could snag a seat with just under 1% of the vote.

  10. awnman

    OK i'm going to chime in from Australia where we have a senate somewhat like what you describe. see it's like that but on a state by state basis. and yes it does lead to some truly bizarre seats like a senator from Victoria as a member of the DLP a party that had been defunct for over 40 years. It also lead to a balance of power being held by third parties something that only gets worse in Canada where there are three major and two major minor parties. if you think coalitions are a good thing for moderating debate then that's great but if you want a senate that's not in constant gridlock its not really.

  11. drs

    I think it's the *House* that should be elected by PR. I'm not sure there's any real point to an upper house, except as a sop to entrenched interests; that said, I'm rather taken by the idea of a randomly selected second house. As far as checks and balances go, a bunch of ordinary people in a statistically representative body, who are not pro politicians, but who are paid to pay attention and deliberate (unlike most voters, a problem with pure direct democracy), is intriguing.

  12. Yannick

    We'd probably hear the usual whining from Westerners about paying salaries to openly separatist "traitors" for 40+ years if senators could be BQ.

  13. OldsVistaCruiser

    Down here in the States, the 17th Amendment, which provided for direct popular election of senators, was ratified in 1913, 100 years ago.

  14. @vonPeterhof

    Not really comparable, since what preceded the 17th Amendment was appointment by the states (and a few states did elect their senators even then). U.S. senators were never appointed by the President.

  15. ThePsudo

    I actually prefer a system we had before the 17th Amendment, wherein the US Senators were usually elected by the state legislatures. That meant Senators weren't elected by popular fad (the Tea Parties, anti-Bush sentiment, the Occupy movement, etc) but by state politicians looking for political expedience for their states. I think such a policy would help prevent the kind of binary polarization of ideology we see in the Senate today. Instead, we'd have the two national ideologies tempered with a dozen or so regional ideologies, allowing Senators to negotiate my national ideology for your regional and/or your national for my regional. Now that Senators aren't accountable to the interests of state governments, they do not have any motivation to hold any ideology but national unless it is well-known to the state's public and dramatically one-sided among his constituents. The obscure, the complex, and the controversial all get ignored in favor of the bumper-sticker answers.

    Boo on the 17th Amendment.

  16. awnman

    Here's the problem with the down the 17th amendment argument. How much do you know of you're local state congressmen, really. See the reason for the 17th amendment was to stamp out corruption. Why because the state legislatures weren't voting people in based on who was best for their state rather it was either down part lines OR voting for whoever paid the most. See most local congressmen have either reached their peak and thus don't mind a little extra cash or see it as a line to a larger office like DC. In both these cases corruption in the picking of senators was rampant. So then it was given to the people because generally they are harder to bribe a least on mass. Now you may say that that kind of corruption was a gilded age mess and that it couldn't happen now but with the recent string of scandals i'm not so sure. finally there's one other issue. Surely in a democracy we want to involve people as closely with the democratic process as possible not stick another layer between them and there representative. I suppose here it boils down to a debate on who senators represent the people of the state or the state itself and that's a question i cant answer

  17. Jake_Ackers

    Different times. Different era. Different markets. Different politics. With the advantage of the 24 hour news cycle, technology and all that, and with a justice system that has very little corruption, we can do better with the state's picking them. You know why? Because I like the idea of a politician that isn't directly influenced by money. I like the idea of a politician who might actually get kicked out of office after one term. And I love the idea of a politician who is more accountable to it's people.

    And yes by legislatures picking a Senator the legislature hold the Senators feet to the fire. When was the last time people actually cared about anything in politics other than election day for President? So if the people won't demand it, then at least have a group of people demanding it for them. At the very least it forces the people to be more aware of local politics while focusing on the federal ones.

    Senators always have to balance the state versus the nation. That is nothing new. And btw we are a republic more so than a a democracy. Otherwise we might as well have a direct democracy. Both the US and Canada are too big as a it and would benefit from less federal govt and more local power.

  18. Psudo

    The general disinterest in local politics is, in my view, a symptom of the same cause — the nationalization of all political ideology to the exclusion of state and local affairs.

    The greatest difference between the ideological deadlock of today and that of the USA previous to the 17th Amendment is that Congress still managed to pass budgets prior to the 17th Amendment. If those were the only two options, I'd prefer the one where Congress functions with a few empty seats rather than the one where Congress is largely dysfunctional despite a full membership. Of course, those two are not the only options; I would be fine with either the modern appointment system or a direct popular vote of Senators occur when a seat is suddenly emptied (by death, resignation, deadlocked legislative vote, etc).

    I utterly reject your assertion that "Surely […] we want to involve people as closely […] as possible." There is, of course, such a thing as the voting public exerting too little democratic influence. But there is also such a thing as them exerting too much. To achieve as much and as direct of democratic influence as possible is neither the sole nor the primary goal of designing a political system. At the very least, the concern of democracy for democracy's sake should be balanced against the interests of legal coherency and consistency, of human rights, and of corruption-minimizing checks and balances. Balancing the popular will against the will of political insiders is not a foolish proposal; on the contrary, having different congressmen elected by different constituencies seems a good way to ensure the multiplicity of factions necessary to keep any one (or two) factions from drowning out all other voices (as is increasingly the case in recent years).

  19. awnman

    Look firstly you seem to think that prior to the 17th amendment the US Senate worked significantly better on financial matters than today. At least once (John Tyler) we had the same issues as now with congress essentially threatening to block the budget if it's demands wernt met. its not so much a people and polarization thing is as legislature looking out for what's best for it. heck this was during a period where several states still used state legislatures to vote on presidents. And its not like we ever had partisan gridlock and massive polarization in the Senate before 1913 *cough* *cough* pre civil war america.

    Ok now the question here is, should voters be allowed to vote for there senators OR should people be allowed to vote for people who will vote for their senators. my question is why is the second better than the first. Your argument seems to be the almost Hamiltonian remove the people as far from government as possible to get rid of mobbish excess. However in a democracy if the majority of people in a state want a crazy tea party or occupy wall streeter to represent them so be it. What makes state representatives uniquely qualified to be the decider. They will do what's best for the state. The hell they will, they'll vote down party lines most of the time. see the thing is democracy so long as the majority of people in a district want a representative that best matches their views no matter how unpalatable they might be we should give it to them. It is not our or the state legislatures or anyone eles duty to moderate the voters. they are what this government should be for

  20. SES

    "I think such a policy would help prevent the kind of binary polarization of ideology we see in the Senate today"

    Before the 17th Amendment, states often failed to elect senators for years at a time because of this binary polarization of ideology.

  21. Jake_Ackers

    Highly doubt it would happen today. More legislature are dominated by one party. And the ones who are close still have a clear majority in either chamber. Plus if the legislatures cannot agree, simply have the Governor give the deciding vote. Or at least have the Governor propose a list of candidates and he picks. Or legislature have a list and he picks one from it.

  22. Psudo

    Would you prefer a few empty seats, as then, or a complete inability by Congress to address many serious issues (including the federal budget!), as now? I would prefer empty seats to seats filled with fools.

  23. Yannick

    The problem with an elected senate is that you will fill the senate with politicians.

  24. @tominkorea

    Egads, politicians in a political body. The terror!

  25. Yannick

    Spare me the sarcasm.

    There's something to be said for having a bunch of everymen run committees researching bills. Politicians tend to a) be more ideological because they can be expelled from the party (therefore making it harder to be re-elected) and b) spend more time debating than in committees.

    The system, up to now, hasn't really failed us yet so much as it's been underwhelming.

  26. Guest

    There are problems with the 'everyman' idea too.
    Firstly, the everyman is generally disinterested in politics. When an election rolls around I am in heaven. Lots of people I know just moan about having to go and vote – "Didn't we just have an election a couple years ago?" is a common complaint.
    Secondly, lots of the everyman are dumb. Now politicians aren't necessarily smart, but there is at least some process of elimination going on.
    Finally, everyman is unlikely to have the skills to research bills and debate – either in the chamber or in committee. Again, sure many politicians lack these skills too – but at least they are interested in the process.

  27. Yannick

    I meant that senators are everymen compared to politicians running for office – in truth who they are depends on the PM who appoints them, but they tend to be eminent people who aren't politicians, like Roméo Dallaire, the guy who was in charge of the UN mission in Rwanda during the genocide.

  28. JonasB

    I think the Senate could be put to good use if the Senators were somehow encouraged to address third-rail issues of policy. Though its important that the Senate has less power than the House, I think there is some benefit to be had from a political body that can act without fear of voter retaliation. The only problem is finding a way to balance against abuses.

  29. Jake_Ackers

    Provinces can pick the Senators for life then or for a longer term. Still have compete people picked but have them stay for life. Balances both of your points. At the very least have stronger anti-"corruption" or anti-"abuse" laws. Or like more reasons to kick someone out of the Senate. "Acts unbecoming of a Senator" or something.

  30. spaaaaaaaaaaan

    I kind of like the idea of a more technocratic Senate. So instead of being elected just generally, instead it'd be a chamber more representative of expertise in different fields. So there'd be 4 seats for engineers (elected by professional engineers), 4 seats for doctors (elected by members of the CMA), 4 seats for researchers… etc. etc. The goal would be to have people with actual knowledge of an area helping in the crafting of laws, instead of just lawyers and political partisans.

    Not to say it's a perfect idea, but I kind of like it.

  31. Jake_Ackers

    Actually most politicians are suppose to have professional advising them in their staff or when its committee time. Problem is the special interests are the only ones who care enough to provide any information.

  32. Mike

    Hmm. Snakes, lies, entering by speaking a language of evil… I think the senate is already the chamber of secrets.

  33. Louis

    Less government officials = Less people with opportunity to steal from the collective pot

    Count me in the "abolish it" group

    When I saw the last image i first though it was a suggestion to burn the senators along with the money…. and for a few second I even tought it might not be a bad idea :)

  34. Eric Stimson

    So which alternative do you support?

  35. News Trader

    I guess this is the first time I hear such a bad news from Canada by the way, it seems that corruption is present in each country after all.

  36. Elease

    i frequent hair salons because i always want to keep my hair in top shape“

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