The Senate is Not the Problem

07 Jun 2015

Now that the Auditor-General’s report on the Senate has been released, Canadians are scandalized by the details: 30 senators with questionable expenses, 9 of whom will be referred to the RCMP for criminal investigations, with a total of almost one million dollars in ineligible spending. Resignations have already been called for and cries for Senate abolition have begun anew. This report comes amidst the trial of suspended Senator Mike Duffy and it seems likely that, unless Tim-Hortons-gate continues to dominate our national discourse, Canadians will again turn their attention to the Red Chamber, but it is time to stop pretending that the Senate is the problem.

Over a decade ago former senator Lowell Murray reflected, “The Senate is not a perfect institution, nor are senators infallible people. There are deficiencies: some of them inexcusable, but these are no more general in the Senate than they are in the Commons.” This is a point that is now being echoed by Senators and MPs alike, many of whom are calling for a similar audit of the House of Commons. Should not all legislators, appointed and elected, be held to account?

When framed in this manner it seems a difficult point to contest, but it is important to look at the broader context of the AG’s report. $976,627 in improper expense claims is certainly a great deal of public money but it took almost $21 million dollars just to fund the two-year audit. Of the $180 million in claims that were subject to the AG’s examination, the improper expenses in question constitute less than 1% of the total. There are certainly egregious offenders and they should and will be held accountable for their misconduct, but are we justifiably outraged or are our concerns hinged on an over-dramatization and partisan outlook on the actual impropriety that has occurred? By no means do I suggest that we should simply ignore the results of the audit. Its outcome will and should have significant consequences for those senators who are found guilty, but what is more important is the concerns that it raises about the internal processes that initially cleared them. If nothing else it is evident that there needs to be a serious reevaluation of the internal governance of our political institutions.

Unless we believe that House of Commons’ fiscal administration to be vastly superior to that of the Senate, it is highly likely that similarly questionable expenses would be found among our elected representatives. How much would it cost to investigate 308 MPs over a similar period? If a similar percentage of expenses were improper, would anyone suggest that we abolish the House of Commons? While it may be nice to believe that being elected is sufficient to curb thoughts of corruption, we should know better than that. The question is whether Canadians are willing to spend millions of dollars rooting out what appears to be a relatively small amount of misconduct, when that money could be better spent on infrastructure, health care, and education. The CBC would be happy to find a use for that money; or perhaps the government could fund any number of the recommendations from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

More troubling than another audit is the notion that the Senate and its reform or abolition will be the defining issue of the coming election. While there are legitimate concerns about the continued reliance on unelected legislators in our democracy, it cannot be forgotten that there are numerous complexities involved in changing or removing the Upper House. Even if Western Canada, Newfoundland and Labrador, the Territories, and popular opinion all come together to agree on a potential amendment, all could easily be for naught if Ontario, Quebec, or even PEI were to disagree. What compromises would be involved in order to prevent any one province from vetoing changes to the Senate? Would they be easier to stomach than enhanced scrutiny of Senate (and House) expense claims?

It may be that Canadians are far enough removed from the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords that we are ready for another attempt to open the Constitution, but such an endeavor should not be taken lightly nor should it be promised so easily as a method of gaining votes. Constitutional reform is a difficult tool for politicians to utilize as a method of solving problems due to how little control they have over its use. It is not enough to suggest amendments; our parties and their leaders need to present clear and coherent strategies about how to ensure those amendments will garner not only popular but also provincial appeal. If we allow the next election to be predicated on shaky promises we will disappointed by the inevitable failures that result. Worse still we might ignore the changes that can be made now because we rest our hopes on a long shot.