A leader who seeks election on the basis that his integrity is superior to the other guy’s integrity is sooner or later going to run headfirst into a wall. For him to deliver on an integrity platform means too many people have to live up to too many standards – as proclaimed by him – and it only takes one to bring the wall down. You would think that everyone knows how to spell integrity, and that everyone spells it the same way, but in real life it just doesn`t work that way.
It is ironic that the wall that connected with the Prime Minister’s head was the Senate, an institution he fervently wanted to reform even back when he was a member of the old-fashioned Progressive Conservative Party. Once in office he found it was easier said than done: The need for constitutional reform; approval of the provinces; the basis on which senators could be elected – there was, and still is, dissension on every issue. That’s why he wisely sent a reference to the Supreme Court asking what the federal government could do on its own. The Court’s response is due very soon, but too late to help with the current brouhaha. In today’s environment, the most popular action would likely be abolition, but for many thoughtful Canadians, that would be the worst option.
When I think about the Senators I have known over many years, I have nothing but admiration for most of them. They have had distinguished careers as parliamentarians (Allan MacEachen, Pat Carney), in public life (Michael Pitfield, Lowell Murray, Hugh Segal), in business (Finlay MacDonald, Ian Sinclair), in academia (Eugene Forsey), or in the professions (Walter Keon.) From both parties, many use their Senate base to further the public good through researching issues not necessarily on the government agenda, but important to the public interest (the safety of coastal lighthouses, mental health, guaranteed annual income.) Not always, but often enough to ensure the legitimacy of the process, this work can and does find its way into public policy.
The Senate has its share of party loyalists or defeated candidates who need a job – and yes, I can name some of them, too, but I won’t. There are fewer than you would think, and they too, for the most part, work hard and make their contribution. (For the record, among those making their contribution I do not include Andrew Thompson, the Liberal Senator who drew his salary and likely his expenses, from a warm and comfortable home in Mexico. There are exceptions.)
It will come as no surprise that Senators can be highly partisan, and that is legitimate. The government has the right to get its legislation passed, but probing by Senators, and Senate committee examination can frequently be more thoughtful than its equivalent in the House of Commons.
As minister of state for finance in the mid-1980’s, part of my job was to steer finance minister Michael Wilson’s budget and other legislation through the committees of the House of Commons and the Senate. Appearances before Senate committees were exacting, and required the best knowledge I could offer. Senator MacEachen, a former Liberal finance minister and a formidable expert on parliamentary procedure, would take me through the budget line by line, asking detailed questions to make sure I knew my stuff. One Senate Committee meeting on a borrowing bill was a cliff hanger, not unlike the debt ceiling debate recently in the U.S. Congress: if the bill had not gone through, Canada would not have been able to pay its bills. It did pass, only at the eleventh hour, and our world was saved. Senator McEachen knew his finance issues, but what he liked best was to catch the government out – not only Brian Mulroney’s Conservatives, but often his own Liberal Party.
Every government finds a strong and informed Senate to be a great trial – all the more reason to have a Senate. Showdowns are inevitable, as in the GST debate, when prime minister Mulroney used a little known rule to appoint eight temporary Senators in order to achieve his legislative objectives in the face of Liberal obstructionism. For opposition Senators to defeat a government money bill would have been without precedent in our parliamentary system and would have triggered an election. But for the most part robust – even angry and bitter debate – serves the public interest.
What became clear to me in my dealings with the Senate was that many Senators, secure in their tenure, become independent thinkers pretty quickly following their appointment, sometimes to the chagrin of the Cabinet. Our government’s abortion bill was defeated in the Senate. It was not a good piece of legislation no matter what side of the issue one was on, and I was secretly relieved. It was an embarrassment for the government, but thankfully the Senate did the right thing.
Which brings us to today’s ugly situation in the Red Chamber.
Amidst all the obfuscation let me lay out some pretty basic points that must be clear to everyone by now: First, the spending rules in the Senate are out of date, muddled, and an affront to the public; second, over many decades many Senators have been careless and occasionally cavalier, in how they manage their expenses, but rarely criminal; third, whether there is a major overhaul of the Senate or not, Senate functions must be transparent and Senators, even though not elected, must be made accountable; fourth, the extreme partisanship and intra party bitterness in the Senate must end; Fifth, the Prime Minister’s Office, living as all PMO’s do in its own bunker, has done its leader and its country, an enormous disservice in its ham fisted treatment of its own Senators; sixth, the Prime Minister’s insistence that illegitimate expense claims be repaid is not only correct, it resonates; seventh, the Senate must do the right thing and allow due process for all of the accused Senators.
What has gone on is disgraceful on many levels. But that does not mean the Senate should be abolished. It is harder to rebuild than to abolish, but it is in Canada’s interest to rebuild. It’s time for some sober second thought on everyone’s part.
Barbara McDougall was Secretary of State for External Affairs from 1991 to 1993.