Still life in the old chamber

August bodies in abeyance

August bodies in abeyance

The Senate, many Canadians seem to believe, is entitled, corrupt and well past its best before date. And given the roiling expense scandals now underway, who can really blame them?

“One could say it’s a great soap opera,” Marilyn Trenholm Counsell, a former senator, herself, told CBC Radio’s New Brunswick rolling home show last week. “Of course, it isn’t a soap opera. It’s real and it’s hurtful.”

She’s right, of course.

Deriding the Upper Chamber has become everyone’s favorite parlor game. “On a daily basis evidence piles up that reveals our upper house to be neither useful nor necessary. An incessant string of scandals and disgraceful behaviour by senators has turned the red chamber into a national embarrassment,” Macleans magazine opined earlier this year. “Its functionality has been eroded to nothing with little prospect for change, despite claims from the Harper government to champion Senate reform.”

To others, however, this conclusion, while not entirely unjustified, seems conveniently rash.

Most of the Senate’s business is in committee. It’s here where, in the words of Senator Muriel McQueen Fergusson, the chamber’s “heart and soul” rests. According to an information circular posted to the CBC’s website a couple of years ago, “committees discuss important social, economic and political issues and this forum is where senators hear from interested citizens.”

Indeed, “Most bills, prior to third reading, are referred to committees where they are examined closely. In the Senate committee stage, public hearings are held, the bills are studied clauses by clause, and a report on the bill is prepared and presented to the Senate. Committees, which function as study groups, include 12 to 15 senators.”

Ms. Trenholm Counsell, who also served for a time as New Brunswick’s Lieutenant-Governor, elaborated on this to good effect in her recent radio interview.

“I worked as hard in the Senate as I did anywhere else. Wonderful work is done; the committee work,” she said. “I worked on. . .studies. I worked on a study on early childhood development. I burned the midnight oil quite often.”

In fact, she observed, “It is so interesting historically. Some bills have had upward of 100 amendments. The history and the tradition has been that those amendments have been accepted. . .I think we need the studies that come out of the Senate.

“In the House of Commons, they may bring in two or three people at the committee stage to speak to a bill. In some of the great bills that have come to the Senate, we might have had as many as 100 witnesses right across this country come in and speak to the substance of the bill. From there we made amendments which, by and large, were accepted. So, the legislation was better, much better. And that is because you had the great people. . .I am worried that this greatness is going out of the thing.”

She’s not aone.

Expense scandals, aside, the Senate’s growing partisanship, its evolution into a rubber stamp for the sitting government is contributing to its compromised stature. If its historical utility was related to its function as a check on the excesses of the Commons, to its role as what John A. Macdonald famously termed a chamber of “sober second thought”, the politics of modern times might easily render these expectations both quaint and antiquated.

Still, some signs are encouraging. As the Globe and Mail reported last week, “Senators pressed the government about why a federal spy agency has been probing telecommunications in Brazil, seeking clear answers about the activities of Communications Security Establishment Canada. Asking whether the spy agency has sufficient oversight, both Liberals and Conservatives in the Red Chamber demanded more information on Thursday about CSEC and its interest in Brazil’s Ministry of Mines and Energy.”

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal, for one, appeared untroubled by his party affiliations when he pointedly commented, “Canada is the only country not to have any legislative oversight of any kind for its national-security services.”

All of which is to ask: Is there yet life in the Upper Chamber?

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