Since taking my seat in the Senate this past February, I have identified a number of simple and practical steps that the Senate could take to improve its relationship with Canadians. When we begin a new session this fall, I plan to bring to the table my seven-point action plan to get the ball rolling.
To ensure greater accountability, the Senate should:
1. Tighten proof of residency requirements, because provincial and territorial representation is one of the core functions of Senators;
2. Add external members to its audit committee, as is done in the UK's House of Lords;
3. Support legislation that would prevent Members of Parliament and Senators convicted of serious crimes from receiving their parliamentary pensions.
To increase transparency and public trust, the Senate should:
4. Clearly define "Senate Business" in its expense policies, so that rules are stringent enough to protect the interests of Canadian taxpayers, but not so restrictive that they handcuff Senators to Ottawa and prevent them from getting out and listening to Canadians;
5. Require more detailed online disclosure of Senators' travel and hospitality expenses;
6. Webcast live video of debate in the Senate Chamber, as is done in Australia, the United States, the UK and countless other upper chambers around the world.
Finally, to improve its engagement with the public, the Senate should:
7. Launch a two-way dialogue with Canadians to improve understanding of its current role in Canada's democracy and explore what role Canadians want it to play in the future.
This plan is not meant to be comprehensive, but I hope that it will start to move the Senate in the right direction. Canadians expect and deserve a Senate that is accountable, transparent and responsive.
Albertans tell me that they are frustrated with the current state of affairs in the Senate, and some see abolition as the only solution. I share their frustrations.
And yet, digging deeper, I find that very few want a system of government in which a House of Commons dominated by Ontario and Quebec is the only body that determines Canada's laws. We are an uncommonly diverse nation and we deserve a more balanced distribution of power.
The decision to include the Senate in Canada's Parliament was not an accident of history. It was the product of reflection and choice by the Fathers of Confederation, who understood that an upper chamber could foster national unity by equally representing regional interests. Since then we have embraced co-operation and compromise in Canada's governance and, as a result, our country will soon celebrate its 150th birthday as one of the most free and prosperous societies in the world.
This plan to improve the Senate's relationship with Canadians is a starting point, not a substitute, for the fundamental reforms needed to transform the Senate into a truly legitimate, effective and modern institution.
It is my hope that implementing this plan will help align the Senate's practices with the public's expectations and thus help to advance the conversation around more meaningful reforms. That conversation must be a serious one about the future of Canada's democracy, free from unnecessary distractions. How Canadians govern themselves is much more important than the current problems dominating the headlines.
Doug Black is an Alberta elected Senator. You can find him on Twitter at @DougBlackAB.