Let’s abolish, not reform, the Senate

This is a guest column; ‘Mihael Willman’ is the pseudonym for a concerned Canadian.

by Mihael Willman

“Unlike ordinary Canadians, the majority of whom have a probationary period before they are considered as permanent employees, senators are secure in their positions from the moment their appointments are announced. No qualifications for the job required, no experience of any kind, just the fact that they happen to personally know the Prime Minister, in whatever capacity, personal friend, political hack, failed candidate.”

I haven’t been much of a fan of the Senate, especially when Pierre E. Trudeau, Chretien and Mulroney were using the Senate for their patronage appointments. Years ago, Stephen Harper and the Reform Party attacked the Liberals for their patronage appointments and had as the party’s major platform the reform of the Senate. The promises to reform the Senate by Harper during his incarnation as Reform Party member, and later leader of the Canadian Alliance, were appealing. Yet since coming to power as the new Conservative Party, in 2006, he has done very little to further Senate reform. Instead, it’s ironic that the person who said he would never appoint unelected senators, has so far appointed a total of 58 senators, of whom only a couple have actually been elected. With 65 of the 105 seats, Conservatives have had a majority in the Senate for some time. Yet reform seems a long, long way off. Despite also having a majority government in the House of Commons, where the Senate Reform Act was introduced in 2011 by the Harper government, the bill to reform the Senate has gone no-where. This raises the question as to just how serious the government is about Senate reform.

Now that Harper has filled the chamber with his rather questionable appointments, the calls to abolish the Senate are becoming louder! Recent events have shown that while previous members were occasionally caught overspending on their expense allowance, or, like the ‘Siesta Senator’ Andrew Thompson, spent their time in the bars and on the beaches of Mexico, the present crop of senators is showing itself to be no less voracious at the public trough than many other Canadian politicians. The most common term is to say that they are no better than pigs at the trough. However, we should come up with another word for politicians who bilk the taxpayers. Calling politicians or senators ‘pigs at the trough’ is clearly defamatory to pigs! Pigs don’t know better, politicians do, but prefer to do otherwise.

Why is it that the average Canadian finds the whole idea of the Senate to be anathema to what democracy stands for?

Unelected to jobs, which for some can last thirty to forty years until their seventy-fifth birthday, with unlimited expense accounts, accountable to no-one, not even the person who put them there! And to top it off, a very generous pension, thanks to the generosity of Canadian taxpayers. Unlike ordinary Canadians, the majority of whom have a probationary period before they are considered as permanent employees, senators are secure in their positions from the moment their appointments are announced. No qualifications for the job required, no experience of any kind, just the fact that they happen to personally know the Prime Minister, in whatever capacity, personal friend, political hack, failed candidate. And to make matters worse, unlike Canadian politicians who can get thrown out of office if the public gets fed up with their antics, (though a nice pension still goes with the pink slip), there is nothing that the Canadian electorate can do to get rid of a bad senator. Only senators can get rid of one of their own and have rarely done so. When sufficiently embarrassed, senators have given their disgraced colleagues the option of resigning instead of being thrown out, thus enabling them to retain their overly generous pensions!

While some might claim that an annual salary of $132,000 (extra if they chair committees) is not excessive for the amount of work that is or is not done, it is more than enough. Not to be forgotten is the fact that senators only work or sit an average of 69 days a year. In other words, they work barely three out of twelve months. For the rest of the year they can do anything they like, such as earning additional money on the speaking tour. In addition to this salary, every senator has what amounts to an almost unlimited expense account, for hospitality, staff and office, living expenses and travel. It is the questionable travel expenses and housing allowances which have been in the news in reason weeks.

And what exactly do senators do? If you asked Canadians, the majority would probably be hard-pressed to provide an answer. The most common reply would be “foolishly spend taxpayers’ money.” As the supposed “chamber of sober, second thought”, the Senate was intended as a counter-balance to Parliament. Its approval is required for any legislation passed by Parliament and, for the most part, it has approved all bills presented before it. However, it has rejected a few bills and has greatly amended others.

But do we really need a second body to question the decisions of our elected officials, and an unaccountable body at that? At the cost of $100 million per year, the Senate has become a luxury Canadians can no longer afford. Limiting senators to a term of eight or nine years would actually cost taxpayers more money, especially if the generous pensions (amounting to 75% of their salary after only six years in office) remains in effect. With a new crop of over 100 senators appointed every eight or nine years, the number of retired senators would explode in no time, as would the cost of their pensions. A nightmare scenario if ever there was one. Abolishing the Senate is the only option. And the sooner, the better.

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Comment: While I do not agree with Mihael that the Senate should be outright abolished, I certainly feel that it requires a massive and drastic overhaul and that the present situation cannot be allowed to continue.  See “Prime Ministerial appointments threaten democracy” (Jan. 26th, 2013) here. -JG.

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