Tag Archives: Senate of Canada

Membership has its privileges?


Trust New Brunswick to tilt at the beast of federal complacency and partisanship. After all, didn’t this province help invent the Senate of Canada? Shouldn’t we, of all this great land’s citizens, now properly tame it, if not actually slay it?

Two senators from this fair province – and from two different parties, no less – prefer door No. 1. But how much luck are they having travelling the high road to reform?

Pierrette Ringuette, who was appointed as a Liberal senator but who has announced that she will quit the Grit caucus and sit as an independent, declared last week that “Canadians have been clear in their desire for a non-partisan Senate. The Senate, as an institution and senators themselves, should be working to remove partisanship from the chamber and with that goal in mind, I believe in taking the proactive approach and sitting as an independent.”

In this, she joins fellow New Brunswicker John Wallace, a former Conservative senator who is now an independent. At the time of his resignation last November, he stipulated in a letter, “Differences that I consider to be irreconcilable exist between myself and Conservative Senate Leader Claude Carignan and other Conservative Senate Caucus members regarding the required Constitutional roles, responsibilities and independence of Conservative Senators. These differences are fundamental to the roles and responsibilities that I have sworn to uphold as a member of the Senate of Canada.”

In an interview with the CBC’s Jacques Poitras, Mr. Wallace said, “I believe in order for the Senate to function as it was intended by the Fathers of Confederation. . .political partisanship, as much as it can be, has to be removed from the Senate,” he told CBC’s Jacques Poitras in New Brunswick. “Others can think otherwise, but I don’t want to find myself constrained by feeling that every time I go against the will of my political leaders, it’s an act of disloyalty.”

Still, as fine and noble as these sentiments ring, when it comes to the Senate of Canada, independence does not necessarily confer any privileges – except, perhaps, those of conscience. In the meantime, just try and get a committee appointment. Go ahead, Mr. Wallace, I dare you.

Since his resignation from the Tory caucus, the good fellow and other independents in the chamber are having a dickens of a time getting a seat on any of the signature quorums that essentially comprise the Senate’s raison d’etre. “The total exclusion of myself and other independent senators from any committee, it’s completely outrageous,” he told the Telegraph-Journal’s Adam Huras not long ago. “It goes right to the heart of the credibility, the reputation and the integrity of the institution. There couldn’t be a clearer example of that problem of irreconcilable difference than what this represents. There is a message that is being sent to me.”

For her part, though her political associations may differ from Mr. Wallace’s, Ms. Ringuette is sympathetic to her colleague’s cause, which is, naturally, also her own. “It’s a sad state of affairs,” she was quoted as saying last week. “You would think that individually and collectively with the events of the last three years that independent spirited senators would rise to the challenge.”

Actually, given those very events of the last three years, I would expect nothing less than the officious, foot-dragging, obstreperous behaviour from the partisan-aligned majority of senators we witness today.

Mr. Wallace’s and Ms. Ringuette’s principled stand, notwithstanding, notions of meaningful reform do not pass frequently through the Upper Chamber’s gilded doors.

Perhaps it’s time to slay the beast, after all.

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Our poor overlords


It appears that the problem with our democracy is not the character of our representation; it is our own wicked inclination to denigrate those who repeatedly disappoint us, even for good reason. Apparently, we’re in danger of electing only those people who can’t take a rhetorical poke from time to time.

Or, at least, so intimates New Brunswick Ombudsman Charles Murray in a recent commentary for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal. Here the good fellow waxes poetic: “Governments, departments and agencies will always be made up of human beings. That guarantees mistakes will be made. The Bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, reminded us that ‘the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.’ Putting mice and men on the same level gets to the heart of it. Perhaps we might do well to pat ourselves on the back a little less when things are going well, and kick ourselves a little less when things have not worked out as we hoped.”

In other words, we should stop castigating politicians in power for changing their minds, lest we run the risk of “getting a government that’s less flexible, that’s more ideologically closed in, that’s less likely to listen, share information and be open. . .Please give us a government wise enough to know there is always more to learn and brave enough to change when change is needed.”

It’s good advice, as a far as it goes. The blame game in politics is as old as mugging for the camera and kissing babies on the campaign trail. But left to its own devices, the caustic fallout can be truly nauseating. For proof, look no further than the United States where any backtracking on any issue, no matter how ludicrous, is a surefire recipe for career suicide.

According a recent piece in the Huffington Post, “It turns out there are some gun control proposals that Republicans and Democrats actually agree on. New findings from the Pew Research Center (show that) fully 85 per cent of Americans – including 88 per cent of Democrats and 79 per cent of Republicans – believe people should have to pass a background check before purchasing guns in private sales or at gun shows. Currently, only licensed gun dealers are required to perform background checks. A majority of Americans (79 percent) also back laws to prevent those with mental illness from purchasing guns. There is a greater divide between the parties on other gun issues. Seventy percent of respondents support the creation of a federal database to track all gun sales, including 85 percent of Democrats but just 55 percent of Republicans. A more narrow majority (57 percent) would like to ban assault-style weapons. That proposal draws support from 70 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans.”

But those Republicans who have reversed their stand on any aspect of gun control have been more furiously vilified by the right-wing press than any Democrat in recent years.

There are, of course, instances where a politician who reverses himself ought to be criticized, especially when his decision is clearly not in the best interest of the people he represents or, indeed, the society he his sworn to protect and preserve. In general, though, a healthy democracy depends on the degree to which we welcome critical thinking in public office. And this necessarily embraces the concept of sober second thought. In fact, this cuts to the heart of the Senate of Canada’s signature mandate.

Do we want cohorts of yes men and women cluttering our assemblies? Lamentably, this is, all to often, our current predicament.

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Our dwindling democracy


Some who reside in the Greater Moncton area don’t give a chocolate-coated fiddlehead about the Mike Duffy affair.

According to one straw poll I conducted by cell phone between the hours of 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. on a recent Saturday afternoon, as I careened out of town for a weekend of fun in the sun at an undisclosed Maritime location, which is, I hasten to add, not my primary residence.

I should also say that the five people I interviewed comprise a statistically meaningful sample of Canada’s voting public exactly zero times out of 20, with a plus-or-minus margin of error of precisely 100 per cent (in other words, about average for national pollsters in recent elections).

I posed only one question, providing survey respondents with the opportunity to rank their five main issues from one to five, in descending order:

“What would you say is your most pressing concern in this absurdly long, already tedious, election cycle? Is it (a) Duffygate; (b) unemployment; (c) the economy; (d) global warming and Canada’s reaction to it; and (e) the weapons-grade stupidity evinced by all but the tiniest fraction of politicians of every stripe in the soon-to-be-again Great White North?”

The results were compelling, if not especially unexpected.

All five respondents declared unequivocally that political stupidity was their most urgent worry. Comments ranged in tone and perspicuity from, “I hate them, I hate them, I hate them. . .did I mention that I hate them?” to, “you know, it’s probably not their (politicians’) fault; inbreeding causes a lot of problems elsewhere in society too.”

Coming in a close second was the economy. One respondent observed: “So, here we have in the Harper government a regime that once insisted the best thing it could do was to stay out of the private sector’s way, and yet it now runs on a platform extolling the virtues of its economic hegemony.”

Third on the hit parade of grievances was unemployment – or rather, underemployment. “I came to this province on the promise of green fields of opportunity,” said one interviewee. “I figured my advanced degree would make me a fine candidate for good-paid work in New Brunswick. Now, I drive a cab in Moncton.”

Fourth was global warming.

Assorted remarks included: “I went to a beach in New Brunswick and I almost froze my feet off”, “I went to a beach in New Brunswick and I almost had heat stroke”, “Oh. . .wait, I think I see an asteroid about to destroy all of us. . .Funny how it looks just like Mike Duffy.”

In Ottawa, far away from what matters to most people down here, the Senate moils and roils to reclaim its significance, the trials of important others proceed apace.

The world here now begins with irrelevance, marches towards false gravitas and ends in self-importance. The regions of this country do not matter; neither do the cities or towns we call home. And the Mike Duffy affair, which should concern us, simply doesn’t rise to the occasion.

We are, all of us, victims of our own distractions, our own obsessions, our own grievances. There is almost nothing left in the collective piggy bank of charity, forgiveness and grace; nothing with which to rebuild the world we so recently broke.

But should we, in our minds, with our hands and hearts so easily abandon the struggle to understand what goes horribly wrong in the National Capital Region?

To our abiding shame, we have begun to care nothing about the condition of our own democracy, with a margin of error of exactly zero.

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The Senate’s nut house rules


There to serve go they in that fine, superbly accountable institution of new-world democracy we call the Red Chamber, the Senate of Canada, a.k.a., the Nut House of the Great White North.

It lives and breathes, wheezes and fusses, as it spins a cocoon for its members – duly appointed by successive Liberal and Conservative enclaves of power – to dutifully inhabit. From there, these silk worms of privilege execute their light tasks, pocketing, for their devotion to their elected patrons, all the ducats they can horde, and then some.

Fresh from two years of gazing at the navels of broadly embattled former Tory Senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin (who were, incidentally, journalists in previous incarnations), the nation’s auditor general, Mike Ferguson, has apparently decided that the whole institution is, in effect, ethically bankrupt.

According to a report from the CBC, whose Chris Hall broke the story last week, “The three most powerful figures in the Senate are among those flagged by the auditor general to repay inappropriate expenses. Senate Speaker Leo Housakos, government leader Claude Carignan and Opposition leader James Cowan have confirmed they are among 21 senators who have been found to have filed ineligible expenses.”

What’s more, “Another nine senators were found to have ‘big problems’ with ineligible expenses and their cases will be referred to the RCMP for criminal investigation following the auditor general’s exhaustive two-year review.

“CBC News has learned that 50 copies of the auditor general’s report will be handed over to the Senate as well as to the Prime Minister’s Office. The report won’t be made public until (June 9), giving staff the weekend (June 6-7) to craft talking points in response to the auditor’s potentially damaging findings.

“Housakos and Cowan are vowing to fight the auditor general’s conclusions on their expenses. Carignan said the auditor’s findings in his case related to expenses by one of his staff, who has already reimbursed about $3,000. But multiple sources tell CBC News the revelation that the current leadership are among those with inappropriate spending has left other senators fuming.”

No kidding. Still, Canadians should be fuming about more than potential and alleged indiscretions and improprieties in the paper chase that has become the Canadian Senate. They should be outraged by the fact that a fundamental institution in this democracy can so easily resemble a cheap grift; a lazy, long-term con job at taxpayers’ unexpected expense and unwitting sufferance.

Then again, to what and to whom should they direct their opprobrium?

Is it to individual senators who, reason supposes, possess IQs above room temperature and so, logic dictates, would have sought, on their own, the path that was least likely to sever their Achilles heels in oh-so-public a manner?

Is it to the Red Room’s managers, legal interpreters and insouciant administrators who have managed to provide only stunningly poor advice on what, and what does not, constitute a legitimate expense claim?

Is it to senior bureaucrats who have, in their predictably unseemly way, bullied and arm-wrestled senators for votes on politically expedient issues?

Or, is it to generations of prime ministers who have used the Upper Chamber as their political bull pen?

In fact, if I didn’t know better, I’d propose that the Upper Chamber simply doesn’t possess the practical cunning and rude brainpower to successfully and deliberately defraud Canadians of their nickels and dimes, dollars and cents.

I might even suggest that those particular talents express themselves, most efficaciously, in an entirely separate Nut House of our parliamentary democracy.

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Waiting for the end times in an Ottawa strip club


Tomorrow is an auspicious day on the calendar for humanity, even for denizens of Fat City (a.k.a. Ottawa), for February 22nd is when the world literally goes straight to hell.

Or as the Daily Mail reports, “The wolf Fenrir is predicted to break out of his prison, the snake Jormungand will rise out of the sea and the dragon of the underworld will resurface on Earth to face the dead heroes of Valhalla – who, of course, have descended from heaven to fight them.”

Well, after all, why not? The Mayan apocalypse proved to be a big fat nothing last year, and we’re certainly overdue. Here, according to RationalWiki.org are a few other calamities, predicted but not (yet) delivered:

In March 2003, U.S. president George W. Bush “claimed that Operation Iraqi Freedom was necessary ‘to thwart Gog and Magog, the Bible’s satanic agents of the Apocalypse.’ (Plan no longer in progress.)”

In 2008, American vice-presidential candidate Sarah “Mama Grizzly” Palin said she believed belong to the “Final Generation” who will “see the End Times during her lifetime. Thankfully, over 9 million Americans disagreed.”

That same year, the Large Hadron Collidor was supposed to produce a black hole that would swallow the planet in one gulp. Yeah. . .still waiting.

Under the circumstances, then, we might give the Vikings a crack at starting the world over. Says the Mail, “Ragnarok is a series of events including the final predicted battle that results in the death of a number of major gods, the occurrence of various natural disasters and the subsequent submersion of the world in water.”

In fact, “legend has it the sound of the horn will call the sons of the god Odin and the heroes to the battlefield, before Odin and other ‘creator gods’ will be killed by Fenrir.”

Spookily, the Norse “believe the Ragnarok is preceded by the ‘winter of winters’, where three freezing winters would follow each other with no summers in between.” Meanwhile, “all morality would disappear and fights would break out all over the world, signaling the beginning of the end.”

Now, that’s sounding almost familiar, and for reasons I can’t quite quantify, the Barefax Gentlemen’s Club suddenly springs to mind.

That’s the Ottawa nudie bar and strip joint where suspended Canadian Senator Patrick Brazeau now works as a day manager. Carmelina Bentivoglio, the daughter of the establishment’s owner, told the Toronto Star that the former Conservative appointee to the Upper Chamber aced his job interview a couple of weeks ago and now he’ll be spending his time,“scheduling, hiring, firing, inventory – just like any other job.”

Well, not quite like any other job. It’s nothing like the job he had at the Senate before he was suspended in November for allegedly bilking taxpayers for expenses to which he was not entitled. Even before his ouster, Red Chamber officials had dunned him nearly $50,000 to recover at least some of his seemingly ill-gotten booty.

Then came the cops who, earlier this month, charged both Mr. Brazeau and his former senatorial colleague Mac Harb with fraud and breach of trust. According to an item in the Star, “The Mounties allege that Brazeau fraudulently claimed his father’s home in Maniwaki, Que., as his primary residence, although he was rarely seen there and lived primarily just across the river from Ottawa in Gatineau, Que.”

The Star also reported that media scuttlebutt indicates that “Brazeau and his estranged wife have been missing mortgage and loan payments and may now face losing their house in Gatineau. . .The disgraced senator is also facing charges of assault and sexual assault as a result of an incident last February.”

Still, apparently he’s not letting any that get him down. A nice piece by veteran CBC political correspondent Rosemary Barton, posted to Mother Corp.’s website, finds the disgraced politico in a philosophical frame of mind.

“Brazeau says he’s doing OK,” she writes. “His health is better, he’s learning the ropes on his second day. He doesn’t seem thrilled with his new job, but neither is he embarrassed. ‘It is what it is,’ Brazeau says, ‘I’ve got four mouths to feed,’ referring to his children. I ask how people are treating him so far. ‘Better than at my old job,’ he quips.”

Yes, indeed. Just another wintry day in Fat City before the world finally goes straight to hell.

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The Red Chamber’s not so red anymore


In question period on Wednesday, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau needn’t have uttered a word; the self-satisfied and supremely amused look on his face spoke volumes. It was the sort of expression one adopts when one has eaten somebody else’s lunch and gotten away with it.

The lunch, in this case, was Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s who has been dancing around the complex and thorny issue of Senate reform for years; one tends to forget that overhauling the Red Chamber, making it more representative and democratic, was a signature plank in the Tory leader’s campaign for federal office.

But it was Mr. Trudeau who pounced, instead.

“As of this morning,” he said in a statement, “only elected Members of the House of Commons will serve as members of the Liberal Caucus. The 32 formerly Liberal Senators are now independent of the national Liberal Caucus. They are no longer part of our parliamentary team. . . .Let me be clear, the only way to be a part of the Liberal caucus is to be put there by the voters of Canada.”

Furthermore, he said, “I challenge the Prime Minster to match this action. As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”

Later, speaking with the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge, he said his timing had nothing to do with an auditor-general’s investigation of Senate expenses, which could embarrass some federal Liberals, calling that a “separate problem from the excessive partisanship and patronage. . .which is what I have moved to eliminate today. . . It’s never the wrong time to do the right thing.”

All of which left Ottawa reeling, including Grit senators.

“We are the Senate Liberal caucus and I will remain the leader of the opposition and we will remain the official opposition in the Senate,” the former Liberal Leader of the  Senate James Cowan said.

“I’m still and Liberal senator, not an independent,” Senator Mobina Jaffer piped up. “I’ve always been a Liberal.”

Meanwhile New Brunswick Senator Pierrette Ringuette called the move surprising, but not shocking, and a “giant step in the right direction. . .If we want to reform the Senate, senators need to be independent of groups and parties, and that’s what the leader has done today.”

In fact, with this move, the leader has done quite a few things.

For one, he’s grabbed the initiative and stamped the future of Senate reform with the Liberal brand. Even if the momentum shifts back to the Tories, they can never again claim that they lead the charge.

Paul Poilievre, the Minister for Democratic Reform, questions the wisdom of freeing unelected senators from the influence and control of elected Members of Parliament (specifically, the prime minister and opposition leaders).That, however, is a point of process; how, exactly, the selection process will work is not yet clear.

What is clear is widespread, even overwhelming, public support for dramatic Senate reform, without which most Canadians would rather bid the institution a long overdue fare-thee-well.

Mr. Trudeau’s initiative, they will say, may not be perfect. In the long run, it may not even be workable. But at least he’s doing something. And that, alone, stands him head and shoulders above the rest on the Hill.

The move has also upended the Prime Minister’s Office’s strategy of keeping the Senate, with all of its attendant scandals, out of the news as much as possible. According to polls, the Mike Duffy-Nigel Wright affair has seriously damaged the government’s credibility.

“What the Liberal Party doesn’t understand is that Canadians are not looking for a better unelected Senate,” Mr. Harper told the House of Commons.  “Canadians believe that for the Senate to be meaningful in the 21st century it must be elected. . .I gather the change announced by the Liberal Leader today is that unelected Liberal senators will become unelected senators who happen to be Liberal.”

It was a good line. It’s too bad lunch was over when he delivered it.

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Seeking sanity on Senate shenanigans

As the ranks of auditors scurrying up and down Parliament Hill continue to swell, the Senate expense debacle is beginning to resemble a poorly written episode of a prime-time police procedural. Call it: CSI Ottawa.

First, there was the review board of the Upper Chamber’s internal economy committee. Then came the Senate Ethics Office, followed by the country’s Ethics Commissioner, followed by the RCMP.

Now, the Conservative Leader of the appointed body, Marjory LeBreton, wants Auditor General Michael Ferguson to conduct what she calls a “comprehensive” investigation of all expenses she and her compatriots have incurred and claimed over the past few months, possibly years.

Good idea, says Senate Opposition Leader James Cowan (a Liberal from Halifax), but why stop there? What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, if the gander happens to be the perpetually honking House of Commons.

Or, as he told CBC News last week, “Is this just another attempt to change the channel here? The problem isn’t the rules and policies. The problem is in the people who want to scam the system.”

Mounting evidence suggests that a sizable chunk of his fellow citizens concurs.

A CTV News Ipsos Reid poll, conducted late last month, found the personal accountability – not byzantine or antiquated regulations – is the real issue among the great unwashed of this country. That’s bad news for Sen. Mike Duffy, who used a personal gift of $90,000 from the PMO’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, to bay back what he owed. And it’s bad news for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, himself.

According to the survey, only 13 per cent of citizens firmly believed Mr. Harper’s contention that he did not know about the donation at the time it was made. Forty-two per cent were certain he was in the loop. Forty-four per cent weren’t sure.

The poll also found most Canadians clamoring for an independent investigation led by either the RCMP or a jurist (shades of the Gomery Inquiry, which sealed the fate of the once-mighty Liberal hegemony begin to haunt).

If such an inquiry should uncover expense gerrymandering, either deliberate or unintentional, 77 per cent thought those involved should relinquish their Senatorial offices forthwith.

As for the fate of the Red Chamber, itself, a convincing 88 per cent were, more or less, evenly divided: 45 per cent said it should be reformed; 43 per cent said it should be abolished. A marginal 13 per cent voted for the status quo.

There’s no reason to question the validity of these findings, which is why there is every reason to, as Ms. LeBreton suggests, enlist the unimpeachable authority of the Auditor-General’s office (and no others) to get to the bottom of this, and more.

Open wide all the books. Shed a torchlight into every nook and cranny of this increasingly dubious institution. Then, when done, cast a critical eye at the Commons. How are Canada’s elected representatives handling their responsibilities to taxpayers? Shouldn’t “reform” be an equal opportunity exigency in the nation’s public realm?

Before there can be true accountability, there must be clarity. When Canadians know the dimensions of the problems that afflict their most important democratic instruments, they will be equipped to demand the changes that are necessary to safeguard their trust in the political system.

“When I say a comprehensive audit of all Senate expenses, I mean just that,” Ms. LeBreton insisted on CTV’s Power Play earlier this week. “Every tax payer dollar that’s spent to the functioning of the Senate all of it. . .The public saw the Senate as a closed club, investigating itself. I came to realize that we really had to respect what the public was saying and turn it over to a body that is absolutely, without question, has a lot integrity and a lot credibility and actually assure the public that we are serious about tax payer dollars.”

It’s time the Senate’s Keystone Kops make room for CSI’s Horatio Caine.

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Foaming at the mouth over lickspittles

Poor Ms. Maj. Her eyes are shut wide open

Poor Ms. Maj. Her eyes are shut wide open

It is rare that a member of the Senate of Canada affords so exquisite an opportunity to drink deeply the rich elixir that is the English language. So let us compliment Marjory LeBreton, the federal Government’s chief representative in the Upper Chamber, for her recent, and truly marvelous, display of verbal pyrotechnics.

To be perfectly clear, here’s exactly what she said in a speech last week: “We moved at the first opportunity to make the Senate more open, accountable and transparent. It was determined from September 2010 onward, Senators expenses would be publicly reported on a quarterly basis. Had that not taken place – no one would have been any the wiser. Things would have carried on in the old Liberal way –nudge, nudge, wink, wink!”

Indeed, she said, “The reality. . .is that we are facing this crisis because we flung open the door and revealed what was going on and now rather than being credited for doing so, we are paying the price for taking this important and necessary step.”

Alas, she added, “I am not surprised. I am a Conservative and I know more than most that around this town, populated by Liberal elites and their media lickspittles, tut-tutting about our government and yearning for the good old days, that we are never given the benefit of doubt and are rarely given credit for all the good work that we do.”

Lickspittle. What a most excellent word; a true mouthful of antiquated bile and embalmed moral authority.

“A useful functionary, not infrequently found editing a newspaper,” is how the 19th century American writer Ambroise Bierce defined the “lickspittle” in his masterwork of humour, The Devil’s Dictionary. Such a cad, he wrote, “is closely allied to the blackmailer by the tie of occasional identity; for in truth the lickspittle is only the blackmailer under another aspect, although the latter is frequently found as an independent species. Lickspittling is more detestable than blackmailing, precisely as the business of a confidence man is more detestable than that of a highway robber; and the parallel maintains itself throughout, for whereas few robbers will cheat, every sneak will plunder if he dare.”

Modern definitions, found in online dictionaries, include, “a fawning underling; a toady; a flattering or servile person” and “a contemptible person.”

Lickspittle’s closest synonym is, perhaps, “sycophant” from the Latin “sycophanta”. According to a Wiktionary entry it denotes “one who uses compliments  to gain self-serving favor or advantage from another; one who seeks to gain through the powerful and influential.” A lickspittle, therefore, is also an “ass-kisser, brown-noser, suck-up, yes man, parasite, flunky” or “lackey.”

Sadly, this detestable creature can be found in nearly all walks of life, doing the  loathsome bidding of their profane superiors in every country of the world. During the Nixon, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush administrations, you could have papered the walls of the Oval Office with them. These days, you can observe them at the IRS, targeting conservative groups seeking tax exemptions.

And while Ms. LeBreton may be justified in vilifying the “media lickspittles” in her midst, sometimes it works the other way around.

“The president and chief executive officer of The Associated Press. . .called the government’s secret seizure of two months of reporters’ phone records unconstitutional,” The Washington Times reported earlier this month. Gary Pruitt. . .said the move already has had a chilling effect on journalism. (He) told CBS’ ‘Face the Nation’ that the government has no business monitoring the AP’s newsgathering activities. ‘If they restrict that apparatus. . .the people of the United States will only know what the government wants them to know, and that’s not what the framers of the Constitution had in mind when they wrote the First Amendment,’ he said.”

In fact, about the only institution, public or private, that remains utterly devoid of lickspittles is a certain branch of the Canadian Parliament, where 105 unelected members, appointed by the Governor General on the “advice” of the prime minister exercise only the soundest judgement, free of influence, in the lofty interest of the citizens they represent.

Isn’t that true, Ms. LeBreton? What, pray tell, is your word for them?

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Driven by their distractions

The political process as we know it in Canada

The political process as we know it in Canada

Political commentators are, as a rule, enormously fond of the sound of their own voices, especially when handed the opportunity to contextualize a galloping controversy. I should know. I can’t count the number of times I’ve used the word “distraction” to describe some office holder’s goof-up.

But, I’m beginning to think we who observe-cum-scribble for a living are coming perilously close to spraining our backs for all the bending over we do in our attempt to perceive the bigger pictures in public life.

Yesterday, my esteemed colleague Jeffrey Simpson, the Globe and Mail’s national affairs columnist, deployed the word, “distraction” twice in one paragraph. “For a government already adrift at midterm, the Nigel Wright-Mike Duffy affair, coupled with the resignation from caucus of another Conservative senator, Pamela Wallin, represents an unwelcome distraction,” he wrote. “It’s doubtful that Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s speech to his caucus on Tuesday – in which he declared himself ‘very upset‘ – will quickly end the distraction.”

In this, he may only have parroted Mr. Duffy, himself, who had characterized his contretemps as a “significant distraction” to his Tory caucus colleagues, before resigning to sit as an Independent.

Still, I’m left wondering: From what, exactly, is all this stuff a distraction? A good government? A sound economy? A functioning Senate? A ribbon-cutting ceremony somewhere near Nowhereville, New Brunswick?

Why can’t we see Senategate for what it is? To wit: A damn good news story that cuts to the heart of democracy in Canada, demanding all the remorseless attention to detail for which the Cosa Nostra of our craft is famous.

I might pose the same question to members of Hog Town’s Ford Nation whenever they cluck disapprovingly at the Toronto Star’s coverage of their man, Mayor Rob, whose talent for landing himself in hot water is downright promethean.

How the burgermeister of Canada’s biggest city manages to survive his days and nights at the cutting edge of contention is one of the great mysteries of the modern age. But survive he does, despite headlines that would reduce most in his position to a quivering pool of gelatin.

“Five days after two media outlets published reports on a video that appears to show him smoking crack cocaine, Mayor Rob Ford again offered no explanation on Tuesday,” thestar.com reported this week. “He did not say whether he has smoked crack while in office. He did not say whether he used an anti-gay slur. Despite an expression of concern from the premier and renewed pleas from council allies, he did not say anything at all.”

Meanwhile, American late-night TV was having a ball at hizzoner’s expense. “Both Jimmy Kimmel and The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart discussed the controversy at the tops of their shows,” thestar.com observed. “Jay Leno also mentioned Ford on Monday’s Tonight Show, joking that if the allegations are true, he’d still be qualified to be the mayor of Washington, D.C.”

In her commentary, Star columnist Heather Mallick noted, “There have been 42 low points in Ford’s mayoralty. . .from sexist and racist slurs, to drunken arguments in public, to a chaotic home life, to repeated court hearings on alleged financial wrongdoing, to, oh dozens more, a relentless sordid drip. I’m worried that unless he resigns, he’s going to punch a baby in the face or run himself over. I’m waiting for spontaneous Ford combustion, right there on the sidewalk.”

None of this, it’s safe to say, is a “distraction” from the business of running a major metropolitan area. In fact, in a palpable sense, it is the business of running a major metropolitan area. At least, it is lately.

The comportment of one’s mayor – or Senator – speaks volumes about the condition of one’s public institutions. It also points a fat finger at the electorate who, either directly or indirectly, play a role in selecting those for high public office.

By suggesting otherwise, well. . .the only thing from which we distract ourselves is the truth of our frequently flawed systems of government.

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The Red-faced Chamber needs reform

They’ve been falling like pins on a bowling lane – not one after another, but all at once, concussed by the sheer force of the public opprobrium against them. First Messrs. Brazeau and Harb, then Mr. Duffy and, finally, Ms. Wallin. May is the month of their reckoning and, at some basic level, of the Canadian Senate itself.

Expense claims make superb political scandals. Who doesn’t believe that public officials are always just one chit away from defrauding the noble, long-suffering taxpayer? Who doesn’t suspect that for every misdeed uncovered in the nation’s chambers of power, dozens more go undetected?

The burden of reality, though, is complexity. Nothing in Ottawa is ever as it seems, and while the tangled webs Senators Patrick Brazeau, Mac Harb, Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin have spun for themselves seem identical, they are not.

Last week, Mr. Brazeau told CBC Radio’s “The House” that he received prior, written approval from the Senate to rack up nearly $50,000 in living costs, a sum which that august body demands he return. His colleague, Mr. Harb, is on the hook for $100,000, a claim he has hired a lawyer to defend.

Meanwhile, Ms. Wallin has quit the Conservative caucus and has no intention of returning until an external reviewer finishes examining $320,000 in travel expenses she has incurred since 2010. In a statement, she said, “Given that (the audit process) continues, I have decided to recuse myself. . .and I will have no further comment” until, presumably, she is either cleared or found culpably responsible for the tab.

And then there is Mr. Duffy – poor, dear Mr. Duffy. He is paying a heavy premium in the court of public opinion for the $90,000 gift he received from the prime minister’s (now former) chief of staff to cover his expense debt to the Senate. The move has both baffled and outraged Canadians, who complain, with some justification, that a member of the Upper Chamber ought to pay his own bills, just like anybody else.

In fact, it’s the variety of these alleged lapses in judgement (as much as their concurrence) that speak most convincingly to the real problem an increasing number of Canadians perceive about the Senate: its institutional ossification.

Here is a body so unfamiliar with the concepts of accountability and transparency that it has no way to influence the comportment of its members without erecting what amounts to a police dragnet.

This observation lets no individual off the hook; nor should it. Mr. Duffy’s behavior  (or what we know of it) seems particularly egregious. Amid the thunder and lightening of popular outrage, no one has yet seen fit to point out that ethical wounds cannot always be healed by legal triage. Notwithstanding the generosity of a friend lately in a high place, the $90,000 Mr. Duffy improperly billed the Senate is still his burden to bear until he, alone, assumes responsibility for the debt. Otherwise, he skates free to spend his unencumbered net worth on whatever he likes. In whose conception of plain dealing is this even remotely fair?

Still, the larger issue is the Senate, itself – a 19th century institution purportedly doing 21st century work. Its members serve at the pleasure of those who appointed them, not always in the interests of the electorate or even the regions they are, by convention, supposed to represent. Its rules of residency are baroque. Its internal review procedures are inconsistent and oftentimes incomprehensible.

It is possible to remove a senator, but as a CTV report noted in February, it isn’t easy. Quoting from the Constitution Act, the news source identified five reasons for turfing a member, including: “If he is adjudged Bankrupt or Insolvent, or applies for the Benefit of any Law relating to Insolvent Debtors, or becomes a public Defaulter.”

Bankruptcy? Really?

All of which only guarantees that the inarguably good work the Senate performs (despite itself) remains shackled both to its fossilized past and current scandals.

There can be only one, sensible reckoning for Canada’s Upper Chamber: reform.

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