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
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
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
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.
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