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Thoughts on the Senate

June 2015

As I travel between my work in the Senate in Ottawa and my home in northwestern Ontario I have the opportunity to talk to Canadians from all walks of life. I am always impressed with their knowledge of Canada’s history, with their intelligence, and with their common sense. Most are disgusted with the tabloid-like news coverage of the Senate. They understand that there are two sides to every story, and they want more facts and background information.

In 2006 the Conservative government came to power and passed the Federal Accountability Act as a response to the findings of the Gomery Inquiry investigations into the disappearance of more than $30 million taxpayer dollars under the last Liberal government. This legislation, along with the existing House of Commons and Senate rules, started the process of holding government and all its employees fully accountable for spending and expenses.

The Prime Minister knew it would reflect on all parties, including his own, and it has, but he was determined to identify decades of abuse and entitlement by a few, and to show the integrity, honesty and hard work of most.  

Canada today is one of the best countries in the world to live, work and raise a family. Her government is efficient and the nation is well-run, but we can always do better and that is our mission.

Most Canadians are surprised when I tell them that the entire Senate, inclusive of everything, costs less than $5 per taxpayer per year, a documented fact.  If we can make that figure even lower, so much the better, because for me, as a tax-paying Canadian Senator, it is all about value for money. The Senate, the chamber of sober second thought, is one of the least expensive branches of government and I am proud of the work we do. I was disappointed that over these many months of coverage on the Senate, almost no one in the media communicated that simple fact and figure. It would have put the issue into perspective, for all fair-minded people.

When allegations surfaced against four Senators, with one (Mac Harb) resigning, and three (Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau) being suspended, the Senate passed a motion in 2013 calling on the Auditor General to conduct an audit of all sitting and retired Senators for a specified number of years. I had just been appointed to the Senate and proudly supported the motion, believing (as I still do), and as the Audit confirmed, that a majority of my colleagues in the Senate are honest, hard-working Canadians.

The Auditor General’s report found 21 cases of questionable spending, many of them misunderstandings or clerical errors, requiring possible repayment or arbitration. Twelve are Conservatives and nine are Liberals. Those Senators had an opportunity in the report, to rebut the findings, and I would urge you to read them. They are publicly available and worth examining to decide for yourself, what you would have done in similar circumstances.

The report also recommended sending nine additional cases to the RCMP for investigation including one sitting Liberal, one sitting Conservative, five retired Liberals and two retired Conservatives. 86 Senators were found to be managing their budgets well, out of a total of 116 current Senators and ex-Senators audited. The total amount in question over those years is approximately $ 977,000. More than half that amount is attributed to retired Senators.

Are Canadians right to be angry? Absolutely, and I will not defend the indefensible. I wish the number of irregularities was zero, but human nature being what it is, and accepting there are a few bad apples in every organization, I am pleased that we are receiving the facts and can now build a system that is beyond reproach.

Long before I was a Senator, I was a taxpayer and I too was angry when I started my political involvement in the 1980’s, fighting against alleged financial mismanagement in the local school board. I know that it’s not just the dollar amounts of improper spending that are wrong, it’s the example that abuse of taxpayers’ money sets for all Canadians.

Does this mean we should abolish the Senate? Or reform it?

The NDP wants abolition, a position it has held for many years. Their “abolition tour” of Canada last year was not particularly successful. It showed a nation perplexed about the whole issue, some basing their opinion on fact, some on media reports and some on emotion. The NDP recently introduced a failed motion to cut funding to the Senate, although they have hypocritically refused to pay back to taxpayers, nearly $ 3 million dollars of improper spending in their own satellite offices, as identified under the House of Commons rules. Maybe we should abolish the NDP too!

The Conservative Party wants reform, and introduced Bill C-7, The Senate Reform Act, 2011, proposing among other items: Senate elections by province, similar to the process in Alberta, and term limits for Senators. It also referred this bill to the Supreme Court, which found it unconstitutional, finding that the Senate could only be abolished with every province agreeing – and with other major changes requiring seven provinces with 50% of the population.

The Liberal Party wants an unelected board of elites, to appoint unelected Senators, counter-productive to most hard-working Canadians’ wishes. Under the current system the Prime Minister is elected and accountable for his appointments. Under the Liberal plan the last trace of accountability would disappear.

I doubt that many Canadians want to reopen constitutional debates and even if we did, it would be nearly impossible to get the federal government and the provinces to agree on how we should reform or abolish the Senate. Quebec and Ontario, founders of the Senate in Confederation, are on the record opposing abolition.

So how can we make the existing Senate work better?  

Now that we have identified spending irregularities in the Senate, we can deal with them and establish a transparent financial system in which all Canadians can have confidence. We should then look at what the Fathers of Confederation intended the Senate’s role to be in the constitution.

Firstly, it is designed to protect the rights of Canada’s regions and minorities. There are 24 Senators from the Maritimes, 24 from the Western Provinces,  24 from Ontario, 24 from Quebec, 6 from Newfoundland and Labrador and 1 each from Nunavut, Yukon and Northwest Territories. Senators work to promote the interests of the province or territory they represent. I know for example from my work in the Senate’s Aboriginal Peoples Committee that we deal with issues affecting Canada’s native peoples in a much more detailed and in-depth way than can usually be done in the House of Commons.

Secondly, as I’ve mentioned above, the committee work done by the Senate – and the reports it produces – have often had great effects on public policy. As a good example of this, the Agriculture and Forestry Committee, on which I sit, recently issued a report on Bee Health. This may not seem important, but in fact, it involves a two billion dollar industry pollinating much of Canada’s cropland, and bees are dying in higher numbers than usual. To write this report, the committee heard from expert witnesses from across Canada and the world, and came up with recommendations for the government on this important issue.

The third key job of the Senate is to give “sober second thought” to bills sent to us from the House of Commons, or to initiate our own bills to be sent to the House. In either case a process is followed to ensure a voice for all Canadians. Just as the House does, we hold hearings and debate all bills before they become law. We don’t debate these issues in a non-partisan manner, but we do debate in what I would call a less-partisan manner. Senators do not need to worry about re-election every four or five years as MPs do, so the level of partisanship you see in the House of Commons is less in the Senate. This helps us take a step back when we examine legislation and amend, pass or defeat, as appropriate to our findings. As an example, the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Committee just examined Bill C-42, The Common Sense Firearms Licensing Act, 2015, which I was honoured to sponsor in the Senate, and sent it back to the full Senate for its final third reading vote.  When passed in both the House of Commons and the Senate, the bill receives Royal Assent and becomes law.

Since Confederation, fewer than 1,000 Canadians have been appointed to serve in the Senate. Almost all have served the country honestly and honourably. Senators are business owners, sports figures, nurses, coaches, engineers, law enforcement, military, teachers, social workers, doctors, pilots, tourism entrepreneurs, plumbers, farmers, lawyers, fishermen, moms, dads and yes, some politicians. It’s a broad cross-section of Canadians. Most of us do not need Senate Rules to teach us right from wrong. We learned that from our family. Most of do not need Senate Rules to tell us where we live. We learned that in Geography class.

Whatever we think the Senate should be in the future, it’s important that we make it work today, and that we communicate our finances and our efforts to Canadians, consistently and clearly.  

I'm proud to be a Canadian Senator, and can only pledge to you that I will work hard on my legislative duties in the Senate and on our committees, and will continue to manage your taxpayer dollars responsibly and respectfully.