Politicians must reform the Senate

Standing in the vast foyer of the Supreme Court of Canada after the judgment on the Senate reference was made public


Federal Director, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Standing in the vast foyer of the Supreme Court of Canada after the judgment on the Senate reference was made public, former Liberal leader Stephane Dion demonstrated, once again, the legendary tone-deafness to the electorate that ushered him into electoral obscurity in 2008.

To listen to Dion, the millions of Canadians demanding action on Senate reform should simply shut up: the Supreme Court has spoken. Forget about electing or abolishing the shameful bordello of back-scratching, he suggested. Instead, we need to accept an unelected and unaccountable upper house, recommended perhaps by a panel of academics and jurists — graduates all, no doubt, of the best schools, the product of the best families.

Dion hailed current Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau’s initiative in expelling senators from the Liberal caucus. He suggested that Prime Minister Harper follow Trudeau’s example — thus eliminating any elected authority over the senators who vote yes or no on every decision of the House of Commons.

On the Senate’s many deficiencies — the corruption, the criminality, the expense-padding, the partisanship — Dion was silent. On the ongoing Liberal party activism of the senators expelled from the Liberal caucus, their fundraising, their organizing, their attacks on the Conservative government, Dion had nothing to say.

On the bizarre composition of the upper house — substantially unrevised in 150 years — Dion had nothing to say: that 7.5 million Canadians living in B.C. and Alberta get 12 votes in the Senate, while seven million Quebecers get 24, and two million Atlantic Canadians get 30 — well folks, that’s just how it goes in Canada, according to Dion and his leader.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation has campaigned actively for a national referendum on abolishing the Senate over the past year. Eighty-two per cent of our supporters in a 2013 survey favoured a national referendum, while 65 per cent supported abolition outright.

In the three days following the court’s decision, hundreds responded to our online question — what now for Canada’s Senate? — with more than 50,000 words of irate, but emphatic demand for change.

It’s easy to understand why the prime minister washed his hands of the Senate file in such haste. The Senate is a national disgrace, with one former senator just completing a jail sentence for fraud on the taxpayers, two more facing criminal charges, two more under RCMP investigation, and the rest anxiously awaiting the outcome of a forensic investigation led by a battalion of accountants from the auditor general’s office.

With an election coming in 12 to 18 months, the Senate is a dirty word in the Conservative war room. And it’s a word we’ll be hearing lots between now and the election, as the RCMP, the auditor general and the director of public prosecutions do their thing.

Meanwhile, the federal finance department recently reported a $5.1-billion surplus, just for the month of February — the biggest monthly surplus since the 2008 financial meltdown. It is the most concrete evidence yet that we’re heading for a balanced budget, sooner rather than later, and with it, hopefully lower taxes and lower public debt, part of the virtuous circle that leads to a growing economy and more jobs.

“Jobs,” “bigger paycheques,” “bigger payrolls” are the words we can expect to hear from Stephen Harper leading up to the election, not “Senate,” “senators,” “Senate reform,” “constitutional negotiations” or “referendum.”

But Canadians are not so easily spun. Canadians are demanding an end to the corruption, the entitlement and the featherbedding so synonymous with the Senate.

Savvy politicians, starting with official Opposition Leader Tom Mulcair, popular cabinet minister Maxime Bernier and Saskatchewan’s Brad Wall, the nation’s most popular premier, know a winning issue when they see one.

Canadians want a vote on getting rid of the Senate. They’ll vote for politicians who respect democracy as much as they respect the courts. If Harper and Trudeau ignore the Senate, they do so at their peril.