The Senate finally does something right

Posted on October 12, 2016 in Governance Debates – Full Comment
October 11, 2016.   JOHN ROBSON

The report of a special committee tasked with finding a strategy to “modernize” the Senate has offered 21 recommendations to rescue the much-maligned institution from its low standing among Canadians and earn the respect its members feel they deserve.

The committee deserves credit for its effort. The report – optimistically titled “Moving Forward” — contains some disagreeably trendy verbiage about the 21st century, the “underrepresented”, “evidence-based” analysis and the need for a “mission and purpose statement” for the future. (If any members are unaware of the goals and purpose of the Senate, they should probably not be senators.)

But it also contains some solid recommendations, from the trivial (televising proceedings) to the daring (replacing party affiliation with looser “caucuses” for purposes like committee membership) to the long-overdue (clearer ethical rules, especially regarding expenses) and the Constitutionally significant (breaking up omnibus bills).

Broadly speaking, the proposals fall into three categories: providing greater openness, improving internal operations and generating better legislation. In principle all are desirable.

Televising proceedings might seem pointless given how few people outside the official Ottawa fishbowl are likely to watch. Televising the House of Commons seems to have lowered rather than raised the tone of debate there, though the spirit of the times may be more responsible than the technology for the decline. Nonetheless, Canadians should be able to watch what is going on in their legislatures and there is no reason they should have to be physically in the visitors’ gallery to do so.

Far more important, if nebulously phrased, are recommendations that the Senate’s committees on rules and budgets “review the totality of its administrative rules” and “direct the Senate administration to develop appropriate guide books and manuals that reinforce and support senators in discharging their multiple roles.” One cannot expect the report to say, in so many words, “we gotta get our snouts out of the trough.” But the reference is clearly aimed at establishing a set of parameters to prevent another episode like the Mike Duffy affair.

A recommendation enabling senators to nominate up to five colleagues for the position of Speaker, with a deputy speaker elected by colleagues, may sound tiresomely administrative, but it is important that the Senate —particularly given its unelected membership —not be a feeble partisan echo chamber of the Commons and such changes should help achieve that.

So will a proposal to group senators into “caucuses” rather than parties, with a minimum membership of nine, all represented on committees. The suggestion is driven partly by a need to put a patch on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s hasty, public-relations-driven decision to expel all Liberal senators from the party caucus without any thought to how bills reflecting the will of the elected House of Commons would then be guided through the labyrinth of Senate procedure. But a less rigid, us-versus-them, in-versus-out pattern of debate and voting would still be an improvement, perhaps even a useful model for reforming the Commons so it becomes less of a high-speed Cabinet sausage-making factory.

Perhaps the most ambitious, and contentious, suggestion would allow the Senate to split up omnibus bills, which group together numerous pieces of legislation into a single bill. Breaking down the bills into individual pieces would free senators from being forced to accept the bad with the good, encourage legislators to actually read and discuss their contents, and perhaps dissuade MPs from trying to hide unpopular legislation by burying it under a mountain of other changes.

For all the report’s encouraging attributes, there remains an elephant in the Red Chamber. The salutary nature of the proposals still runs up against the fact the Senate remains an appointed body that operates without popular consent. Its members hold their positions at the approval of the prime minister, despite changes in the appointment process introduced by the new government. But since senators cannot change that arrangement, they would be irresponsible not to make the best they can of the situation as it exists.

This report is a good step in that direction. Even if the Senate were to become an elected body, virtually all its recommendations would still deserve to be adopted. It remains the responsibility of members themselves to adopt, enforce and follow the proposals in the spirit they are intended. Given past performance, that is not a given. But Canadians can always hope.

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