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The Canadian Senate has often been referred to as the sober second thought. The house of commons was originally set up to have two chambers, the upper and the lower, to carefully decide Canadian laws. The Senate, in the upper house, reviews proposed legislation and ultimately decides whether a bill becomes a law. They are responsible for protecting the interests of Canadians, in all regions, and of all minorities. Recently however, there has been a big concern for more accountability. Many Canadians believe the senate no longer seems necessary, or acceptable, while others still see its need of approval. Which leaves Canada with some very diverse decisions; to amend it, abolish it, or leave it as is. This essay will explain why the Senate should be amended in order to show more accountability and transparency, as well as having an elected body instead of appointed, while ending on the important benefits the Senate still holds in Canada´s democracy.
Let’s start by looking at how the Senate functions. After the House of Commons passes a bill, it then goes to the Senate where they must vote on whether or not it becomes a law. Originally, it was intended to allow the elite, wealthy Canadian representatives to veto legislation. Today, the senate consists of 105 members, who have all been appointed by various Canadian prime ministers and their terms last until their 75th birthday. It´s quite clear then that when selecting people for the senate, the prime ministers usually appoints them from their own political parties. Senators are divided by various provinces biased on how long they have been a part of Canada, meaning Quebec and Ontario each get 24 senators, and the rest of the provinces have anywhere from 1 to 10. It becomes very controversial when the Senate doesn’t approve a bill from the House, so they usually tend to send it back with a list of recommendations on how to improve it; consequently acting as a second pair of eyes, which is why it´s received the nickname “sober second thought.”
Recently however, this sober second thought has been the centre of corruption and cover-up allegations and has provoked a heavy debate about the role of the Senate in our government and whether or not it should be amended or abolished. It outlines a lot of undemocratic examples of the role of the senate. The most recent scandal started when conservative senators, Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau were suspended for allegedly fraudulent travel and house expense claims. They were originally caught by the Auditor General of Canada, and although they have paidmost of it back, have rightfully raised a lot of concerns from Canadians. All three have been suspended from the Senate, without pay.
Since all three senators were appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and are part of the conservative party, he has been directly linked to the scandal. In fact, Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, paid Mike Duffy’s invalid expense claims, giving Duffy nearly $90,000 of his own money to reimbursethe Senate. Harper is taking no responsibility, even after Duffy has publically declared Harper’s involvement in the matter.2 Harper was hoping to quietly dismiss the issue by suspending the three senators and by vaguely repeating himself in saying “We don’t assure Canadians that everything will be perfect. But we do assure Canadians that when anything goes wrong people will be held accountable, the misuse of expense accountsis not appropriate and will be dealt with appropriately.”
But, the scandal doesn’t end there, as the details of their suspension have not been properly defined; will they be taken off the public pay roll, or if there two years of suspension will count towards their six years needed to qualify for parliamentary pension, or if Duffy, who has a heart condition, will be eligible for disability allowance. These decisions will be sorted out by the senate and are currently being called technicalities, even though they were supposed to be suspended without pay, without benefits or the pension plan.
It seems the government can’t agree. Liberal Senate leader James Cowan said the indecisions are just more proof that the government hurried through the suspensions to solve the scandal and the government has been merely making decisions up as they go along. Harper’s attempt to deflect the expense scandals surrounding all three of the senators he appointed have left him in a engulfed in deception and lies. He stands exposed as a deceiver and manipulator. He says he never tried to cover up the reimbursement to Duffy for his false housing and travel expense claims. But Duffy’s convincing account of the matter delivered to the Senate, as well as other documentary records that have emerged, say otherwise.
Really then, the simplest reform proposal should be to have the Senator’s books open and allow unrestricted access to Auditors. Canadian citizens should be able to see where their tax dollars are being spent. The technology of posting receipts or documents online has been around for years, so why is this something that hasn´t reached the government? Canadian taxpayers pay millions of dollars per year to support the Senate,which goes towards generous salaries, housing allowances, and other expenses.
Quarterly summaries of all Senators’ expenses are posted online but do not have all the details about where they have travelled, or how much was spent on transportation, accommodation and overall travel expenses. Yet, on the other side, detailed information on travel expenses by government ministers and parliamentary secretaries is posted online, including the destination and the length of each trip. So why the exception? This controversy is definitely pushing forward the debate to reform the senate.
And the Senate definitely needs to see some changes, as it does need to be reformed. Most importantly, it needs to be elected. Canada is a democracy and how can one argue against the democratic way of choosing your representatives’? Citizens should be able to vote for these representatives, taking the decision away from the Prime Minister. It is obvious that it´s undemocratic to have members of parliament, who are specifically chosen by the Prime Minister, being able to veto legislation of elected politicians. In fact, 7 out of 10 Canadians want an elected Senate.6 Plus, having an elected Senate would help reflect more diversity in the House of Commons. Women, visible minorities, aboriginals, small political parties and other minority groups are poorly represented.
This doesn’t mean these groups are not attended to, but it is a problem when the country’s main legislative body does not include the same diversity as the population it represents. Overall, it would legitimatize the power the Senate currently has. Each chamber would represent their people and political deadlocks would be unavoidable, The Senate would not suffer from time constraints or excessive one-sidedness. However you look at it, the current Senate is unelected and unaccountable to electors, leaving it lacking any legitimacy in a democratic government. So, why not just abolish the Senate? It is no secret that that is what the political NDP party wants. In fact, opening the homepage of Toronto NDP leader, Craig Scott, he lists a number of reasons to agree with him in its abolishment, mainly that,¨There is no place in our democracy for an unelected Senate top-heavy with Prime Ministers’ friends and political party fund-raisers and donors.
False housing and residence claims, abuse of travel privileges, and other unethical conduct reflect a deeper problem of unaccountable privilege. It is wrong that Senators can earn side money by serving on corporate boards while drawing public salaries for being at work 56 days/year on average.´´ 8 But why go to the far extreme of abolishing it? Why not fix those problems. Abolishing the senate without changing the voting would basically give anyone with a majority government too much power. Reform will be better for Canadian democracy. The Senate does help the public become more informed and helps with analyzing the deliberate and undeliberate results of proposed law. Canada needs its sober second thought. Plain and simple, we need it. It is important and does actually help our often dysfunctional Parliament.
The senate’s purpose is to provide Canadian proposed legislation, giving it this second look and ultimately having more eyes on passing proposed laws. While currently, it may be difficult to see the good the senate has produced, especially while looking at their paychecks, scandals, or hours worked, but nevertheless, they are important. A reform is all that´s needed. They have done more good than harm. In 2008, the senate amended a bill that gave the minister the unilateral power to pick and choose which movies would get tax credits, which would have jeopardized freedom of speech. In 1991, the Senate stopped a bill that would have criminalized abortion.9And, as of the most recent, a bill that was fast tracked, Bill C-377, was amended by the Senate.
This would have allowed all Canadian labor unions to publicly disclose their financial statements or risk losing their tax exempt status. And a lot of Conservative senators had doubts about the bill. Concerns included that the change would overstep provincial power, since the provinces have jurisdiction over labor law, and this would have violated privacy. Overall, the importance of the Senate is not to emphasis on what they do, but on what they stop others from doing.
The Senate is clearly one of the most controversial issues in Canadian government. Canadians are simply not happy. The issue to amend it or abolish it will continue to haunt parliament until action is made. Biased on the recent scandal and unmistakably there needs to be more accountability, which could be achieved through transparency. It needs to elected, as an un elected body should have no right in a modern day democratic institution. The Senate was set up to protect Canadians and holds an important role in amending and revising Canadian legislation, it only needs to be modified to better represent democracy.
1. Jackson, Robert J., Jackson, Doreen., “Politics in Canada” Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Education Canada, 2009.
2. Jackson, Robert J., Jackson, Doreen., “Politics in Canada” Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Education Canada, 2009.
3. River, Hay. “Harper dismisses Senate expenses scandal as reason for prorogation.” The Globe and mail; 2013: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/harper-dismisses-senate-expenses-scandal-as-grounds-for-prorogation/article13872921/
4. Annis, Roger, ¨Canada’s appointed Senate controversies reveal deeper trend of authoritarian rule, ¨ Vancouver Observer, Nov. 3rd, 2013: http://www.vancouverobserver.com/opinion/canada%E2%80%99s-appointed-senate-controversies-reveal-deeper-trend-authoritarian-rule?page=0,2
5. Mackrael, Kim, ¨Red Chamber should open the books on travel expenses,¨ The Globe and Mail, Aug.20th, 2013: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/red-chamber-should-open-the-book
6. Mukerji, Jaideep, ¨Seven in ten Canadians want to directly elect their senators,¨ Angus Read Global, December, 2011: http://www.angusreidglobal.com/polls/43954/seven-in-ten-canadians-want-to-directly-elect-their-senators/
7. Gibbins, Roger and Roach, Robert, ¨What´s an elected Senate for? ¨ Canadian West Foundation: http://cwf.ca/commentaries/whats-an-elected-senate-for
8. Scott, Craig, ¨Abolish the Senate,¨ http://craigscott.ndp.ca/abolish-the-senate
9. Alghabra, Omar ¨Should Canada elect, abolish, or reform the Senate?¨ The Huffington Post, Nov.16th, 2013: http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/omar-alghabra/senate-reform_b_4268401.html
10. Mackinnon, Leslie, ¨Conservative senator´s amendment guts union disclosure bill ¨ CBC News, June 26th, 2013: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/conservative-senator-s-amendment-guts-union-disclosure-bill-1.1367879 Bibliography
1. Mackinno, Leslie, ¨Proposed Senate reforms wouldn´t have stopped expenses scandal¨ CBC News, Nov.16th, 2013: http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/proposed-senate-reforms-wouldn-t-have-stopped-expenses-scandal-1.2427137
2. Whittington, Michael., Williams, Glen. “Canadian Politics in the 21st Century.” Toronto, Ontario: Thomson, Nelson, 2004.
Good paper with a clear argument. Do be careful that your academic reasoning doesn’t turn journalistic in content and writing style. Grade: 11.5/15