The Senate is the most misunderstood political institution in Canada. I have served in the legislature, provincial cabinet and the House of Commons, but none are as maligned as the Upper House. Many Canadians do not understand or appreciate what the Senate does, or why, or the importance of its work.
Increasing scrutiny of the Senate reflects a growing cynicism among Canadians about all political institutions. People are more distrustful of government now. Look at the voter turnout; it was 59 percent, an historic low, in the 2008 federal election.
Bangladesh had parliamentary elections that year, too – and saw 63% turnout. New Zealand had 69 percent turnout, Austria 72 percent. At a recent 2012 byelection in Calgary Centre only 29 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot. Canadians are not as attached to the political system as they once were.
Senators do the day-to-day work of lawmaking and administration. It is unglamorous but it affects lives. I was part of a panel that led to establishment of the Mental Health Commission. I’ve worked to help veterans and co-op housing boards and seniors. I’ve tried to help the people in my home province, Prince Edward Island.
Of course virtue is its own reward, but the fact remains media pay little attention to the daily work of the Senate unless there’s a problem. The House of Commons draws the television lights in Question Period every day, but because Canadians don’t hear much about us in most media, there’s a perception the Senate is not really doing very much. I think televising more Senate proceedings will change that. Canadians are not getting the whole picture. People would have a better opinion of us if they could see the thoughtful work that happens here.
The scandals don’t help. Canadians are questioning why the Senate is even necessary. There’s no question Canadians have lost confidence in the accountability of Senators. That concerns me. But while necessary audits are ongoing and media are focused on disreputable conduct, many of us continue to stand up on issues important to Canadians, like the recent cancellation of literacy funding. I’d rather be working on aid for literacy than confronting the swirl of scandal.
Yes, the Senate has made mistakes. We should have made more effort to communicate. More accountability measures should have been put in place. Many of the rules for Senators have been ambiguous, and this will all come out in the Auditor General’s report. But in the end I think this is all for the good, and we will see the Senate emerging as a stronger, reformed institution that will earn back the confidence of Canadians.
As I leave the Senate, I’ll say it proudly: I believe in this place; I think it is needed; and I think it does good work.
(Editor’s note: the author is retiring from the Senate after 30 years in public life, including a term as premier of Prince Edward Island)