The Senate of Canada has long been criticized as a bastion of cronyism, a waste of tax dollars, and an unaccountable rubber stamp. The latest expense-related scandals and caucus resignations in the Senate will only serve to further tarnish the Upper Chamber in the eyes of many Canadians. Despite some politicians now outright campaigning for its abolition, Canadians would be wise to give the Senate a sober second thought.
As a lawyer who addresses issues with government on behalf of clients, time and time again I have seen the integral role the Senate serves as a check- and-balance in the passage of legislation. It is not uncommon for bills to pass the House of Commons, only to have Senators propose amendments to close loopholes, fix mistakes or other concerns, that are ultimately accepted (if not embraced) by the House.
In the passage of the Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act last year, which allows victims of terrorism to sue perpetrators of terrorism and their supporters, I personally know the important role Senator David Tkachuk played in ensuring this crucial legislation received Royal Assent only after problems in the legislation were addressed. (Some were discovered by opposition MPs in the House of Commons, including Irwin Cotler and Jack Harris.)
Frankly, there is no better place to see the real value in the work of senators then at committee stage. Senate committees discuss important political, social and economic issues of the day that simply don’t get a full hearing in the otherwise partisan and acrimonious House of Commons. Here senators of every political stripe have made significant contributions to the affairs of this nation.
Take for example the work of Senator Jim Munson on autism. He has almost single handily been responsible for raising the profile of the need for a national autism strategy and increased funding. Another example is the late senator Mike Forrestall, and former senators Lowell Murray and Pat Carney and their collective work on identifying and conserving heritage lighthouses in Canada through the Heritage Lighthouse Protection Act. Then of course there is the work of Senator Michael Kirby and his 2002 report on the state of Canadian health care, which received wide praise and attention.
Perhaps even more vital as it relates to our collective safety and security as a country, is the work of Senator Colin Kenny and the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. The work of this committee has highlighted security gaps and threats that Canada faces at airports and border crossings in the war against terrorism, effectively prodding both Liberal and Conservative governments to strengthen domestic security since 9/11.
All of these notable contributions are possible because of the nature of our Senate. Any politician would be wise to think twice before tinkering with it. Senators are free to speak their minds and vote with their consciences, something we all know our elected politicians are rarely afforded. The even-handedness and non-partisan approach of many of these senators, principally because they do not face the vagaries of elections, is commensurate with the powers of the Senate to introduce non-money bills, delay legislation, and recommend policy changes, which serve to hold members of the House of Commons in check.
While the list of proposed reforms to the Senate has grown long over the years, one sure fire way to strengthen the Senate is to respect it as an institution and fill it with those credible Canadians who understand its integral function of holding government to account, proposing policy changes and legislative revisions to bills.
The goal ought to be an appointment process akin to the Order of Canada, where the best and brightest in their respective fields, such as law, arts, medicine, and business, are appointed as representing the best of Canadian society. These are Canadians who have made significant achievements in their chosen vocations.
There are many examples of current sitting Senators who meet this high threshold for appointment and it shows in the work they do. Our prime ministers should aim for a Senate with this matrix of excellence, and Canadians can demand nothing less. Otherwise we risk throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, and there is nothing sober about that.
The following was originally published in the Ottawa Citizen.