You know that you are looking at a real political scandal when, with each passing day, new information and previously unknown individuals crowd the stage for attention along with the original script and cast. When the setting is the Senate of Canada, long itself an object of jest, as well as a cartoonist’s delight – nowhere more so than in the pages of this newspaper – then one must conclude that the gods have smiled upon the citizens of Canada. After being cynical for decades about the virtue of their politicians, they have proof that those in public office will, given the chance, live down to the low esteem in which they are said to be held.
There is a paradox in this unhappy state of reputations, however. Despite what the public says about politicians – that as a group MPs are self-serving sheep who cringe before their party’s whip – as individuals the voters generally like, indeed respect their own member, thinking him or her hard-working and public-spirited.
For those in the upper chamber, the situation is reversed: the reputation of the group is established by the least estimable senator. Anyone who thinks senators are nobodies should consider the unhappy fate of Andrew Thompson (1967-1998), whose record for poor attendance in the Senate while living in Mexico eventually attracted the attention of the then-new Reform Party intent on purging Parliament of bad apples and bad habits.
Will Mike Duffy (assisted by the actions of other senators inattentive to the rules of the upper chamber) grab the lead standard held by Mr. Thompson? At the moment. and given the facts that have come to light, this seems quite possible. Mr. Duffy was a television personality widely known to the Canadian public before his appointment to the Senate; by contrast, Mr. Thompson, leader of the Ontario Liberal Party for three years, was not at the outset of his senatorial career the household name he later became. Compared to the bizarre explanation Mr. Duffy has offered for confusion as to the location of his primary residence, Mr. Thompson’s long sojourns in Mexico, due to poor health he said, almost savour of the exotic. A national news correspondent who does not know where he lives most of the time is a tale that lodges permanently in the memory of his fellow citizen. The revelation that the Prime Minister’s chief of staff gave Mr. Duffy money in order to compensate the Senate for expenses inaccurately claimed – a gift the Prime Minister denies any prior knowledge of – compounds public dismay and anger at the senator and the government who selected him.
It is ironic that the Senate, the national institution so consistently out-of-favour with the Canadian public, should also be the only national institution purposely designed by the Fathers of Confederation to serve the needs of the new federation. The Crown was borrowed, the Commons copied from Great Britain, but the Senate was original – and distinctive: appointed not elected, for life (now to age 75), the total number of senators fixed (except for a rigid provision for a handful of extra senators in the case of deadlock), and allocated equally among senatorial divisions, which in the case of Ontario and Quebec comprise single provinces, but otherwise do not: the western division, for instance, is made up of four provinces each with six senators for a total of 24 (the same as each of the central provinces). Whatever one’s view today of these characteristics of Canada’s upper chamber, the point to remember is that debate on the composition of the Senate at Quebec in 1864 took longer than any other matter and absent agreement that embedded these characteristics in the Constitution, there would have been no Confederation in 1867.
The Senate is a national institution whose members are appointed by the Crown on the recommendation of the prime minister. For the purpose of reimbursing senators who travel to and live temporarily in Ottawa, the concept of residency is important and must necessarily be audited and enforced. Otherwise, the significance of the concept is debatable when talking about the Senate. Geography may be important in Canadian life but arguably it is less important in the upper chamber than other parts of the political system. Senators do not have a constituency; therefore they are not selected by voters nor are they required to return for re-selection. In other words, they are not representatives in any true sense of that term. Although it spikes the blood pressure of the critics, the fact is that senators are politically responsible to no one but themselves.
Senators may not have constituents in the sense MPs do, but they have strong interests: agriculture, trade, social justice, civil liberties, health care, defence, and much more. The witnesses who appear before Senate committees bring regional, provincial, and national perspectives to the bills being examined, while in the House the opinion heard tends to be personal and local in concern. Both perspectives are required for good legislation. That is the justification for bicameralism.
Where a senator comes from does not determine the quality of the work he or she does. The controversy over Senate residency requirements should not suggest that it does. Mike Duffy’s problem has nothing to do with his being a ‘parachute senator’ any more than the successful career of Lowell Murray, a gold-standard senator by anyone’s measure, was the result of his being from Nova Scotia but appointed an Ontario senator. It would be unfortunate if this element of elasticity in the senatorial appointment procedure, rare though its use has been, should fall victim to a scandal over improper personal behaviour.
David E. Smith won the 2007 Donner prize with his book The People’s House of Commons: Theories of Democracy in Contention. He is currently the Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Department of Politics and Public Administration at Ryerson University