As the ongoing trial of disgraced Senator Mike Duffy continues to loom large in the news the media has been treating Canadians to a daily diet of opinion columns and letters to the editor asking why we don’t just get rid of the Senate. For someone with a high regard for the intelligence of either the general populace, the letter writing segment of it, or the class of professional scribblers who earn their bread and butter by composing opinion columns, it must surely be disheartening and disillusioning to realize that so many of those they so admire have displayed, through asking this question, their acceptance of an easily refutable premise. As one who does not hold any of these groups in high regard I do not share this disillusionment – merely a sense of disgust.
Suppose someone were to come forward with evidence that high ranking police officers have been taking bribes, trafficking confiscated narcotics, and otherwise abusing the powers and privileges that come with being charged, in Her Majesty’s name, with the enforcement of the laws of the land? I imagine you are all shocked at the very suggestion of such an unheard of possibility. Once you revive from your faint, snap out of your catatonic state, or otherwise recover from the trauma that has just been inflicted upon your psyche ask yourself if, in the event, perish the thought, that such evidence were to be found, it would be reasonable to argue that because of such corruption, law enforcement agencies therefore ought to be abolished. Perhaps someone reading this who is an anarchist by way of political ideology would say that such an argument is reasonable but if he is a true anarchist he would say that all government agencies including the police are illegitimate regardless of whether we can point to specific examples of corruption or not. Otherwise, I expect, very few would conclude that the abolition of law enforcement is a reasonable response to police corruption.
That point that I wish to make is that you cannot deal with corruption and abuse of office by tearing down institutions and offices once such corruption and abuse is manifest within them. If we were to seriously attempt to do this then very soon we would have no institutions left but corruption would be as much present among us as ever it was before. This is because the source of corruption, as Christians and conservatives have always known although the fact continues to elude liberals, progressives, and socialists to this very day, is not institutions but the human heart. If you tear down an institution because you find corruption in it, you will also find corruption in whatever you erect to take its place because it too must contain the human element. Unless, of course, you are envisioning the replacement of man by machine ala James Cameron.
The Canadian Senate, let it be said, does not do a very good job of representing the principle it is supposed to embody and has not done so in a very long time. If the principle is a true one, however, and important to the balance of Parliament, then an imperfect and badly flawed representation is better than no representation at all. The House of Commons embodies the principle of representative democracy – that we, through the representatives we sent to Parliament, have a say in the laws we live under. The Crown embodies the principle of dignified, prescriptive authority that transcends popular politics. This is the more important of these two principles because governments can only derive power and not authority from winning elections – the power of numbers that comes from having a majority or at least a plurality behind you. A government that has power but not authority is a tyrannical government even if its power is democratic power. In our constitution, the government possesses authority as Ministers of the Crown in whose name they act and power as elected representatives of the people. What then does the Senate represent?
The Senate represents the principle that laws should not be enacted in haste, that reason should govern passion, and that legislation written by the representatives of the people should be reviewed by those representing experience, public spirit, and the wisdom that comes from age before it is allowed to become law. As I said, the Senate does not represent this principle well. Indeed, it would not be going too far to say that it does an abysmally poor job of representing the principle. Nevertheless, the principle is a sound one and it is better that it be represented poorly than that it not be represented at all. Note how the impulse to tear down the institution because of the corruption within it is the very opposite of the principle of not acting in haste and allowing reason to overrule passion. To give in to such an impulse would not bode well for our country.
If abolishing the Senate is a bad idea, and it is, the Upper Chamber is badly in need of reforms. I would suggest the following reforms as being particularly appropriate and necessary: 1) that the advisory role to the Crown on appointment to the Senate be taken from the Prime Minister’s Office and placed in the hands of a committee that itself is independent of the Prime Minister’s Office - perhaps consisting of representatives of the provinces, 2) that we increase the minimum age of Senators from thirty to perhaps forty-five or fifty, 3) that we either scrap salaries for Senators altogether or reduce them to something that is a mere honorarium while 4) updating the Constitutional property requirements for Senators to reflect a century and a half of inflation. (1)
These proposed reforms, which unlike the Triple-E alternative advocated by the old Reform Party, seek to be respectful and true to the tradition upon which our Parliament is founded, would go far towards ensuring that the Senate is filled by public spirited individuals with the wisdom of experience rather than cronies of the Prime Minister looking for a cushy position with a large salary and expense account. This would lessen greatly the biggest problem with the Senate as it currently stands while helping it to much better represent its principle in Parliament.
Of course, these proposals would be anathema to someone like Warren Kinsella who in his Toronto Sun column last weekend argued that the Senators were hastening the demise of the Senate by their own words and actions and gave as his chief example of this, Nancy Ruth’s remarks about the quality of airline food given in answer to the auditor general’s question about why she had charged a different breakfast to her expense account. Kinsella spoke of her “arrogance” and her “appalling condescension and contempt”, an interesting choice of pejoratives coming from someone who often tells Canadians what they think or feel as if those who thought or felt differently from him were not “Canadian”, examples of which can be found in the very same article. Kinsella led into this by providing details about the Senator’s background in the Jackman family, using her wealth against her to paint a portrait of patrician pride. Thus I infer that he would not approve of my proposal that only those of independent means be allowed to sit in the Senate.
Reading Warren Kinsella’s column solidified more than ever my conviction that the Senate must be retained and that the reforms which I have proposed would be for the best. After all, which is the more reasonable response to a rich Senator complaining about how airline breakfasts “are pretty awful”? To tell the Senator that she can pay for her breakfast out of her own independent means or to insist that the Upper House of Parliament be abolished altogether?
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca