Monday, 3 June 2013

WHY EVEN ELECTIONS WON’T SAVE THE SENATE

Most Canadians, who have given any thought to that most anachronistic of legislative institutions, the Senate, believe that it offends their democratic sensibilities, that it is remote, elitist, unnecessary and generally useless. The truth is, the Senate has done little to assuage this view.

Is there another condition underpinning the red chamber’s perceived illegitimacy? Perhaps.

The problem, as I see it, is that Canadian society is devoid of a meaningful ‘culture’ of the Senate.  It possesses a place neither in our hearts nor in our minds.    

Most people have an intellectual and an intuitive understanding of the role of the Senate’s sister chamber, the House of Commons. Similarly, they have a mature appreciation of the role and responsibilities of individual Members of Parliament (MPs). 

MPs perform, almost daily, inside and outside the House.  They are spokespersons in the media, critics and defenders of public policy issues; champions of rights, causes and public interests. As the Government, some of them act in Ministerial capacities; hence, MPs’ relationship with Cabinet Government is, is both understood and respected. They eschew obscurity.

MPs also return to their constituencies to be graded, every four years or so. 

Either as witnesses, supporters or participants (or all three) in the electoral process, many Canadians have cultivated a well-developed sense of what they expect of their MP.  We have reserved a willing place for them, on a multiplicity of levels.  It is easy to describe their presence and their role, as ‘cultural’.

When you think about it, perceptions of both the role and our expectations of MPs have been a part of our political consciousness, for a long time.

By comparison, our perspective of where the Senate and the role of Senators fit in our politics is quite undeveloped, and for good reasons. We are limited not just by our theoretical but also by our experiential knowledge, of the second Chamber’s constitutional purpose and what it actually does, day to day.

Democratic processes have a different resonance, too, when the Senate is invoked.  If, for example, a citizen were voting for a Senator, would he apply the same criteria to a candidate, whom he might vote for, as MP? Would his expectations of the two candidates, with regards to public policy matters, differ? Would they be perceived as duplicates of each other or might a Senatorial Candidate be expected to bring something different to public discourse?  

The issue is not only about how they might assess the Senator’s capability during an election, but on what basis they would judge his performance later on.

Would it be on the basis of how “soberly” he assessed some piece of legislation? On how capably he debated fellow Senators? If in Opposition, would he receive brownie points for how skilfully he delayed or proposed changes to specific pieces of legislation? If a supporter of the Governing Party, should he take equal credit, with MPs, for things accomplished, even though the Senate has no constitutional authority to propose a money Bill? Would the public care if the Senator was an effective Member of a number of Committees, Studies and Inquiries?

In modern Senate history, a filibuster or two and a hunger strike by a Liberal Senator in the Mulroney era brought the Chamber some fleeting public profile.  More recently, the manner in which Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin and others have kept their Accounts, has put the Senate back in the news.  But after these matters are disposed of, it is unlikely the public will be any more enlightened as to the Senate’s functional importance to Canadian society, than it ever was.

The Senate does not consume any meaningful media ‘space’ (absent Duffy type issues); hence, it does not engage our consciousness. How could it not be absent from our culture, too? 

When it comes to the Senate, no one can point to historic battles fought; no Senator, in that role, is known to have made an indelible mark on Canadian society. 

In short, there exists no context and little empathy for what constitutes ‘appropriate’ responses to either fundamental or complex Senate related issues. It will take some time, several elections and a substantial presence, on the evening news, before the public is able to sort out an appropriate differentiation of the two Chambers.

In the meantime, their notion of the role of the Senate will remain as vague as its best known label: “ a chamber of sober second thought”.   Such a nebulous and undefined attribution is not a great claim when the very foundation of the place is being challenged by abuse, and possible illegality.  It is worthless when its status is compromised after a decades held view as to its uselessness and representation from an eclectic mix of elites, but mostly pastured partisans, who have no obligation to ‘report’ or do much of anything.

Even if the Senate were reformed, I submit, Canadian society is not geared for a second House of Commons; the Senate has to offer something more or different and not something less.  Had the Senate been successful, throughout history, in taking possession of at least a part of our political mindset, things might have turned out differently.    

Without having captured a place in our ‘hearts’, for well over one hundred years, it is difficult to imagine, how even an elected Senate, could now acquire a legitimate place in either our minds, as having a role in Canadian democratic institutional development. 

Even on the local level, no Senator has attempted to build a relationship or as much as a tenuous connection, with the people each ostensibly represents. But for sporadic exceptions, they could be as dead, as the institution that gives them a title. 

When Senators, themselves, see no need to report and when their constituency sees them as illegitimate, what is left to be said?

Unless you believe that an “equal” Senate (i.e. P.E.I. is to Ontario as Vermont is to California) is in the cards, or that there is still a chance that this legislative body can be infused with a new, more relevant constitutional purpose, likely you will be happy when the Senatorial dustbin has been cleaned out.

 

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