Canada’s Senate and the ‘One Bad Apple’ Lie

With the news yesterday that the Auditor General of Canada will investigate the expenses of each and every senator as well as the overall spending of the Senate as a body, the summer of scandal for the upper chamber has just gotten substantially worse, and there’s likely more to come. All this while the Harper government goes to the Supreme Court to argue that it has the power to abolish the Senate if only seven (as opposed to all 10) provinces agree.

Since the expenses scandal started to percolate in the public consciousness almost a year ago, we’ve been repeatedly assured that it was just a few bad apples. First it was just Patrick Brazeau. Then it was just Mike Duffy. Then it was Mac Harb, too. Now it’s just Pamela Wallin. Of course, the Senate’s first move earlier this year was to issue itself a clean bill of health except for Duffy, Brazeau, and Harb, and hope the whole thing went away.

Here’s the thing: By the time someone tells you “it was just a few bad apples,” it’s almost certainly untrue. The nature of large institution is that the Auditor General is almost certain to uncover more spending irregularities and abuses. Indeed, it’s possible that no large group or firm could withstand the kind of scrutiny the Senate is going to be put under, but these politicians—and worse, political lackeys who made it big—knew that their profession came with risks when they took the job. Now the culture of the Senate itself is in question, and not just by me.

The Senate’s defenders (and because of some Stockholm syndrome that grips so many Ottawa-watchers, they are legion) will point out that the House of Commons is actually more opaque than the Senate, despite every government in history having once railed against spending abuses while in the opposition benches. This may be correct, but it misses the point: Voters retain the ability to punish the government, but by design can’t punish the Senate. This makes them less tolerant of its abuses, not more, and it’s hard to find the public at fault here.

The pro-Senate team has its work cut out for it. As the scandal has deepened over the last year, the Harper government has appeared more and more serious about abolition, most recently in an argument to the Supreme Court that attempts to lower the threshold of provincial consent. The argument is kind of a mess, but that it’s the formal position of the Government of Canada is important and can’t be dismissed, nor can the fact that four provincial governments already agree or aren’t ruling out abolition is also important. (Though admittedly, neither Ontario or Quebec is currently on that list.)

Which is all a long way of saying that we’re well past the point of needing to discuss what we want the upper chamber to do, anyway. The idea of a chamber of sober second thought is honoured more in the breach than anything, and the notion that it somehow guards against a dictatorship of the prime minister is laughable, because by definition every legislative abuse in Canada was passed with the Senate’s assent.

There are some good reasons to keep a Senate, though none of them particularly apply to the actually existing chamber we have. It doesn’t really protect regional interests, it’s certainly not invincible against partisan or electoral politics, and it second-guesses the government rarely if at all. Plenty of wealthy, modern, well-run countries get along fine without a second chamber, as does each and every province in Canada. Not to mention that many of our provinces notably have linguistic and regional schisms that would seem (using the logic of some Senate defenders) to demand an Upper House of their own, and yet, the trend since Confederation has been exactly the opposite: Provinces one by one either got rid of their second chambers or were created without them, and never saw the need to introduce them.

So the question for Canadian parliamentarians is, really, are we as smart as Canadian provinces?

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