The visible damage inflicted by the long running, political prime time reality show called the Senate, is chilling. The chamber of sober, second thought has evolved into a chamber of political horror and confusion. There is now general agreement that the Senate must be abolished or reformed, with or without the opening of the constitutional Pandora’s box.
Untested and unproven criminal charges of fraud and breach of trust have now been laid against two Senators, one a former senator and one no longer in caucus. The general wisdom is that more charges are to come. Charges will lead to lengthy trials and legal wrangling.
Liberal senators have been set free from their chains of loyalty to the leader and to the party, courtesy of Justin Trudeau’s ‘shock and awe’ announcement.
Conservative senators, meanwhile, are still fairly sure they are partisans but are understandably confused about who’s the villain: Is it the Prime Minister and the PMO staff for some debatable appointments in the first place? Or is it their own bad apples who appear to have taken advantage of a system of entitlement? And, of course, no one has yet to understand why a PM’s chief of staff would pay $90,000 to a Senator who had allegedly fudged his accounts.
Friendships are strained, relationships are broken, and reputations are sorely damaged. The workplace itself, must be toxic. Yet, above all of it, some fine work is being done by some fine senators.
While this damage to Canada and its brand is bad enough, we must also be mindful of the invisible, or collateral damage; the quiet damage. Senators don’t come to the chamber alone; they are surrounded both by family and by community, all of whom feel the humiliation of negative publicity. The Senate is not just an inside-the-beltway story. The shock waves are being felt across the country. Staffers, many of them hardworking, decent people, have been caught in a tense situation, both in Ottawa and smaller communities. The tentacles of this institution have been deeply ingrained in the Canadian landscape for years.
In addition to affected individuals, there is the very important concern about the effect on our young voters. In the last federal election, youth voting rose slightly from the 2008 election to 38.8 per cent. In other words, more than half of the young people in this country do not vote. They don’t vote in part because of a lack of interest, a feeling that all politicians and political parties are the same and a feeling that their vote doesn’t count. Will the Senate reality show anger young people and energize them to become politically active or will it simply turn them off voting in higher numbers? If further apathy sets in, it can cause real damage to our democracy.
Partisanship is in danger of becoming a nasty word. For years, we exhorted our youth to engage and to sign up for political parties. What are we saying now? Get engaged, but then at some point, disengage? Non partisan agreement on a number of key files, especially in the international arena, would be helped. ( Louise Arbour has recently suggested a multi party foreign policy). But where, when and what is the tipping point? Will political parties have to change their messaging, and how?
And, finally, while waiting for the Supreme Court to clarify what if any changes could be carried out without constitutional interventions, what is the effect on any potential appointee? Would anyone really want this job at the moment?
Perhaps it’s time to write an updated job description of a senator? In spite of the salary level, it would appears that the Senate is not a really full time job. If it were, senators would not be allowed to sit on boards or have other businesses. And if a new job description was developed, let’s ensure the principles of gender equality and diversity as well as regional representation.
In the weeks when senators are not sitting, turn the chamber over to schools and universities on a rotating basis from different provinces. Let students in. Let them debate. Let’s keep them engaged. Let’s hear their ideas.
If we do not mitigate the damage that has been done, we are all going to pay a price. Let’s move forward with bold, creative ideas. Let’s take the opportunity to turn damage into opportunity.
Penny Collenette, a former senior fellow at the Kennedy School of Government and former director of appointments in the Prime Minister’s Office under Jean Chrétien, is an adjunct professor in the University of Ottawa’s faculty of law.