By Scott Feschuk - Thursday, March 14, 2013 - 0 Comments
Time for the Senate to fight back — Scott Feschuk has some ideas
The whole Mike Duffy thing has brought to light a shocking truth. People of Canada, there’s a second house of Parliament.
Apparently it’s called the Senate and all along it’s been right down the hall from the House of Commons. Mostly there are old people in there every afternoon—so naturally, many of us assumed it was a Swiss Chalet or possibly a matinee screening of that movie where Meryl Streep forces Tommy Lee Jones to go to sex counselling. But no: legislative body the whole time!
Having existed for more than a century, the Senate has produced a number of memorable achievements, such as having existed for more than a century. Also, there was one day that a plucky young upstart openly defied the two-nap minimum. He was subjected to a thorough harrumphing.
Being a senator sounds like a pretty sweet gig. You get an office, a staff and an annual salary of $132,000. You are also entitled to collect up to $22,000 a year in living expenses if a) your primary residence is more than 100 km from Parliament Hill, or b) you feel like it.
By macleans.ca - Friday, March 8, 2013 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
In the face of patronage, scandal and futility, getting rid of the Senate is a better option than doing nothing at all
Let’s begin with a trivia question for constitutional experts: name all the federal states worldwide with a single, or unicameral, legislature.
It’s commonly held that federations—countries marked by overlapping powers of national and provincial or state governments—must have upper and lower houses in their legislatures to ensure effective regional representation and prevent power imbalances. And yet some federal states manage to govern without a second legislative body.
The answer to our question? United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Micronesia, the Comoros Islands and St. Kitts and Nevis. Oh, and don’t forget Canada.
Canada does have a Senate, of course. And yet this is a distinction in name only. On a daily basis evidence piles up that reveals our upper house to be neither useful nor necessary. An incessant string of scandals and disgraceful conduct by senators has turned the red chamber into a national embarrassment. Its functionality has been eroded to nothing with little prospect for change, despite claims from the Harper government to champion Senate reform.
While the Senate may have been a good—perhaps even critical—idea during the founding of Canada, today it serves no real purpose other than to bring itself into disrepute. From a practical perspective, Canada already has a unicameral legislature. Why not make it official?
During the Quebec Conference of 1864, which set out the future structure of Canada’s political system, John A. MacDonald, then attorney general and not yet a Sir, observed, “In order to protect local interest, and to prevent sectional jealousies, [Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes] should be represented in the Upper House on the principle of equality.” In fact, the shape and power of the Senate was one of the main topics of consideration at Quebec City, occupying six of 14 days.
It now seems ludicrous to imagine the Senate should take up even an hour of serious discussion. Rather than a place for sober second thought or regional balance, the upper chamber has become a repository of political cronies, former media personalities and many other depressingly unserious characters.
Consider the legal troubles of Patrick Brazeau, recently charged with assault and sexual assault. Or the sad affair of recently resigned senator Joyce Fairbairn, declared legally incompetent as she dealt with Alzheimer’s disease but still allowed to vote. Or the ongoing residency and travel expense scandal in which various high-profile senators have had trouble identifying where they lived. Or the fraud conviction of former senator Raymond Lavigne. Or, or, or . . .
Of course the Senate has long had a reputation for cronyism. And it’s no stranger to impropriety. Witness the Beauharnois scandal during the 1930s, in which two Liberal senators personally benefited from the government’s construction of a hydro dam on the St. Lawrence River. Lately, however, the pace of scandal has picked up at the same time as the Senate has found itself with even less do to.
The dramatic centralization of power in Ottawa into the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office means the Senate can no longer play any significant role in the mechanics of Canada’s political system. Where it was once conceived as a forum for providing scrutiny and financial oversight of government business, the rise of public watchdogs such as the auditor general and the Parliamentary Budget Office has entirely supplanted this role. And the Senate’s lack of democratic legitimacy prevents it from pushing back against government initiatives in the name of regional fairness.
Added to all this is the popular perception, fuelled by the current expenses scandal, that senators seem to work their hardest when maximizing their take from the public purse; finding new and inventive ways to claim travel and living costs or otherwise skirting the rules.
Such a situation is troublingly ironic, given that Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power in 2006 promising to make the Senate relevant and respectable again by ending political appointments and implementing a process to elect new senators.
Unfortunately, and despite the appointment of two elected senators from Alberta, Harper appears to have been seduced, as were all his predecessors, by the prospect of using the Senate to reward friends and consolidate his own political power. Where he once derided the Senate as a “dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the prime minister” Harper has thus far made senators out of a passel of failed Conservative candidates, several major party donors, his former communications adviser and various others who appear out of their depth, such as Brazeau and former newsman Mike Duffy.
Harper’s Senate Reform Act, introduced in 2011, proposed to appoint senators elected through provincial elections and limit terms to a non-renewable nine years. Both are sensible suggestions that would go a long way to repairing the Senate. Yet it was only last month, with the Senate rocked by a string of scandals, that Harper went to the trouble of asking the Supreme Court for an opinion on the obvious constitutional problems associated with his proposed changes. As Maclean’s Ottawa Editor John Geddes’s lengthy investigation into the practicality of Senate reform makes plain (see “ ‘Contempt for the whole institution,’ ”), Harper’s reforms will likely require the approval of seven provinces comprising at least half of Canada’s population. It’s a stiff requirement.
It is already the case, however, that provinces other than Alberta, notably New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, have already passed or are in the process of considering Senate election legislation. Nonetheless Harper continues to grind out appointed senators in these provinces rather than encouraging elections by offering to cover the costs. Two months ago, for example, Harper named Denise Batters, wife of deceased Conservative MP David Batters, as Saskatchewan’s newest senator. Adding a further dash of irony, Batters was chief of staff to the provincial justice minister when Saskatchewan’s Senate election bill was passed.
It’s hard to escape the feeling that Harper’s passion for Senate reform has been severely compromised by his seven years in power. This makes intuitive, if disappointing, sense. Regardless of any expressions of idealism when in opposition, what sitting prime minister would want to create a truly equal, elected and effective Senate that would have as its main purpose to counterbalance or limit his own powers? From this perspective, Senate reform may simply be an outsider’s preoccupation, doomed to be abandoned once power is achieved. If so, then real, constructive Senate reform is not just a remote prospect, but an absolute impossibility. Is there a way out of this trap of hypocrisy?
It’s worth noting that Harper’s court reference also puts forth the option of abolishing the Senate altogether. The Supreme Court has been asked to consider three possible methods of achieving this: inserting an end date, eliminating all mention of it from the Constitution or simply taking away its powers. It’s a strategy worth a serious look.
On paper, abolition appears as constitutionally difficult as reform. But at least it holds the promise of being attractive to the ruling party, since it does not entail any loss of political power. As such, it exists within the realm of possibility. And given the ongoing legacy of patronage, scandal and futility, getting rid of the Senate looks to be a better option than doing nothing at all.
By John Geddes - Friday, March 8, 2013 at 5:00 AM - 0 Comments
After months of scandals, could it finally be time to scrap the Senate? John Geddes reports
For a sense of how damaging the news has been for the Senate this winter, take a guess at which of two Feb. 6 stories most stuck in the minds of Canadians. There was the release that day of a carefully researched report by the Senate’s finance committee on the persistence of lower consumer prices in the U.S. than in Canada, just the sort of policy work senators use to justify their patronage positions. And then there was Sen. Mike Duffy scuttling away through the kitchen after giving a speech at a Halifax hotel ballroom, trying to evade reporters asking questions about his claim that he mainly lives on Prince Edward Island, the dubious basis on which he’s collected a Senate allowance for his Ottawa housing costs. At the journalists in hot pursuit, plying his former trade, Duffy huffed, “You should be doing adult work.”
Many Canadians listening to that TV clip—let’s stipulate that few were distracted by the worthy committee study of prices—must have wondered if it isn’t senators who should heed Duffy’s advice. Parliament’s upper chamber has suffered through patches of deep notoriety before, but the past three months brought an unusually sustained flurry of public-image pummelling. A key reason was the marquee quality of three Conservative senators who found themselves under unwelcome scrutiny. Duffy is famous as a former long-time TV news personality. So is Sen. Pamela Wallin, whose six-digit travel expense claims are also the subject of controversy and a special audit. And Sen. Patrick Brazeau—whose far more dire downward spiral, culminating in charges of assault and sexual assault—is also widely recognizable for having been thrashed last year by Justin Trudeau in a highly publicized charity boxing match.
By The Canadian Press - Thursday, February 7, 2013 at 9:25 PM - 0 Comments
OTTAWA – It’s been a rough year for Canada’s upper house.
Thursday’s ouster of…
OTTAWA – It’s been a rough year for Canada’s upper house.
Thursday’s ouster of Sen. Patrick Brazeau from the Conservative caucus after reports of a domestic disturbance at his home is just the latest in a string of negative news for the Senate, from controversial expense claims to mental incompetence.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper recently announced he would be asking the Supreme Court for its opinion on his plans for Senate reform.
But proposed term limits and Senate elections aside, the Senate’s image has taken a beating — with some only too eager to continue wielding the club.
“The Senate sees itself as unaccountable. It sees itself as completely protected from all the little peons who pay their wages — and that’s not good enough,” said NDP ethics critic Charlie Angus.
The NDP wants to abolish the Senate.
“If we’re going to see real Senate accountability, then right now, today, the prime minister needs to say he’s had enough. Canadians are fed up with these guys.”
Some of controversies for the red chamber over the last year:
— Conservative Senate Leader Marjory LeBreton asks for a study into attendance rules after The Canadian Press reports last summer that the youngest senator — Brazeau — also has the worst attendance. He cited personal reasons for the absences.
— Septuagenarian Liberal Sen. Rod Zimmer’s marital situation with his 23-year-old wife were laid bare after she is charged with causing a disturbance onboard a flight.
— Liberal Sen. Joyce Fairbairn retires after it is revealed she had been suffering from dementia, but continued to attend the chamber and vote with the knowledge of her party.
— A handful of Conservative senators balk at their own government’s plans for Senate reform. Harper does not use his majority in both houses to push legislation, ultimately resorting to the Supreme Court for an opinion.
— An audit of housing expense claims is commissioned after reports suggest Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Brazeau are charging for living allowances designed for out-of-province residents, even though they apparently live in the Ottawa-area.
“We’ve had a period of time when I think it’s fair to say there’s been a very rough patch for the Senate and I’m sure the Senate itself is as troubled by these developments as Canadians would be,” said Liberal MP Ralph Goodale, the party’s deputy House leader.
“It’s going to be very important for the Senate to reflect that concern, and demonstrate their … willingness to fix the problem.”
Allan Gregg, chairman of polling firm Harris Decima, said the his last big survey on the Senate in 2010 showed antipathy toward the Senate. The survey of 1,000 Canadians said 59 per cent were in favour of elections to the upper house, and 27 per cent wanted it abolished altogether.
“They should do what the government is asking them to do, which is limit their terms and put themselves out for elected positions,” Gregg said.
“The structural change would probably have to come before there would be any significant change of attitude that this a relevant organization that is worth keeping.”
The Senate has put a bigger emphasis on communications over the last few years, with a centralized media-relations shop, a Twitter account, and more information online.
Still, some elements of the Senate remain stuck in the past. The Senate attendance register can only be viewed by visiting an Ottawa office building. Debates are not easily searched online as they are with the House of Commons, and the chamber is not televised.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story, a previous story wrongly said Sen. Rod Zimmer was a Conservative. He is a Liberal senator
By Julie Smyth - Saturday, October 27, 2012 at 6:15 AM - 0 Comments
On how she met Sen. Rod Zimmer, and their life post-scandal
The Senate is Canada’s institution for sober second thought, but some senators have been distracted by other matters lately—namely Sen. Rod Zimmer, 69, and his 23-year-old wife, Maygan Sensenberger. The fascination began before their wedding. “Literally, the senators would pass Rod notes—one of them made a joke about something silly. I think it had something to do with Hugh Hefner. It was just fun,” laughs Sensenberger during an interview this week.
In Ottawa circles, rarely is the water cooler discussion this sensational: a prominent Manitoba Liberal marrying an attractive blond 46 years his junior. Sensenberger and Sen. Zimmer became international news in August—their one-year wedding anniversary—when Sensenberger caused a disturbance on a flight from Ottawa to Saskatoon and received a 12-month suspended sentence with one-year probation. Other charges of uttering threats against her husband and endangering the safety of an aircraft were dropped.
The couple was back in the spotlight last week. With her husband at her side, Sensenberger appeared on CTV’s Power Play to talk about her volunteer role in a short film. She has the lead part in a movie about a world run by women. (The working title is First Ladies.) Sensenberger was also part of Ottawa Fashion Week, modelling pieces by her designer friend, Gwen Madiba. One headline read: “Redemption on the runway. Maygan Sensenberger catwalks back to Ottawa.”
By Scott Feschuk - Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at 9:49 AM - 127 Comments
*Update: Challenge winner announced in the Comments below.
In today’s Ottawa Notebook, Jane Taber describes Tom Flanagan as “super Tory strategist.”
Does she mean “super,” as in “especially good at what he does?”
Does she mean “super,” as in “possessing extra-human powers such as the ability to strategize faster than a speeding Stephanopoulos?”
Or does she mean “super,” as in “I’m sorry I had to take a whole day off from saying nice things about Laureen Harper or directly quoting Conservative talking points, so I’m doing this instead?”
More important, the Notebook points out that Senator Jerry Grafstein is soon retiring, which gives the Prime Minister yet another opportunity to appoint someone new, or the rest of Mike Duffy, to a seat in the upper chamber.
[Brief pause to allow outraged readers to use comments to assail fat joke...]
I’m actually pretty sure there are a couple senators stepping down before Grafstein, but the point remains – soon it will be time yet again for Stephen Harper to respect his promise never to fill a single Senate seat through patronage, except for all of them.
Janine Krieber – Think of the play this would get: the disaffected wife of a former Liberal leader welcomed into Continue…