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The Senate plays a critical part in Canada’s democracy. Its members review bills and propose amendments, hold consultations into pressing matters and produce useful reports. They can even introduce some types of legislation that go on to the House of Commons for passage.

But because it is an unelected body filled with a select subset of Canadians rewarded for their service to their party or their country (or both), the Senate always risks being seen by taxpayers as a caricature of cushy government bloat: a collection of 105 entitled and underworked political appointees enjoying the gilded benefits of a publicly funded sinecure until the age of 75, with a minimum annual salary of $164,500, a tax-free housing allowance, a generous pension, and none of the inconvenient politicking that MPs shoulder.

It ought to therefore be a central preoccupation of any government that the so-called chamber of sober second thought be taken seriously by the people who serve in it, and by the prime minister who gives them their jobs, so that the public is inclined to do the same.

And yet a new investigation by The Globe and Mail has found that, in 104 Senate sitting days since November, 2021, an average of 25 members didn’t bother to show up for votes on the passage of bills and other matters.

In one notable case, just 58 senators were present on Feb. 2 for the final vote on Bill C-11, which makes important changes to the Broadcasting Act. Of the 19 votes on legislation since last October, 12 were attended by 58 senators or fewer.

That an average of 25 out of 105 senators can be relied upon to be absent from what amounts to their defining function would be bad enough. But because of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s continued indifference to filling vacant Senate seats, that number has more often been 25 out of 95, or worse.

There are currently 16 vacancies, in fact. Four have occurred since January, but some date back to 2020 and 2021. If current attendance trends continue and more senators leave (three will hit retirement age this year) without being replaced, we could soon be at a point where close to one in three of our sober second-thinkers play hooky when their vote is required.

There are, of course, valid reasons for a senator to miss a vote. Health can be an issue in a body whose members can work to 75 (one study found in 1997 that the average age of senators was 64). Family matters can take precedence sometimes. And a senator can be away from Ottawa or unable to make it to the chamber for valid reasons related to their job.

But the high number of absences suggests that skipping votes has become an acceptable and common practice for a group of lucky Canadians who have no fear of losing their jobs, and for whom showing up for votes when the Senate is in session is (unofficially) considered optional.

It’s a workplace culture issue, or at least it should be. Combined with the fact the Prime Minister can’t be bothered to fill long-standing vacancies, the visible indifference to the role and importance of the Senate leaves the impression that no one in government really takes the place seriously any more.

Given that a key function of the Senate is to balance regional interests across a vast country, it is all the more alarming that nine of the current 16 vacancies are seats representing the Atlantic provinces. Six of those have been empty for a year or more.

This raises a troubling thought: Has the scandal-plagued Trudeau government become so indifferent to good governance that something as simple as filling Senate vacancies – the PM nominates someone and the governor-general rubber-stamps their appointment – is now beyond it?

Canadians pay a lot of money for the privilege of having an upper chamber. The Senate’s budget for 2023-2024 is $126.7-million – a 43-per-cent increase from fiscal 2015-2016, the year the Trudeau Liberals came to power.

And what are they getting for that? From outward appearances, an expensive and unelected body that has workplace discipline issues, and which is slowly being abandoned by the government of the day – the 24 Sussex Dr. of Parliamentary houses, so to speak.

The Senate’s existence is guaranteed in the Constitution, so it’s not going anywhere. That makes it doubly insulting to Canadians that it is managed so poorly, and from the top down. Mr. Trudeau should do his job and fill vacant seats, and existing senators should make sure that they are sitting in theirs.

Editor’s note: The Senate’s budget rose 43 per cent from fiscal 2015-16 to fiscal 2023-24, from $88.8 -million to $126.7-million. The Senate’s actual costs in fiscal 2015-16 were $74.6-million. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version.