“We can learn a lot about a place from the kind of scandal it generates,” writes J. Patrick Boyer. On that count the Senate fares not too badly. Its disgraced members are cited for cheating on expenses and lying to their colleagues. There have been no kickback schemes; no influence-peddling; no secret contracts, poisonings or manslaughter. The Senate merely embarrassed itself in the comic manner of a self-satisfied and slightly pompous aristocrat made to look ridiculous.
Our Scandalous Senate is a lively recounting of the famous troubles by a former two-term MP. Boyer is a delightful writer who dissects the problem plainly: the Senate suffers from a near-absence of leadership. Speaker Noël Kinsella warrants only cursory mention in Boyer’s account, and only then to be mocked for his ineffectual news conferences.
“The absence of administration was camouflaged by hallowed pretense of the Senate’s ‘honour system’”, Boyer writes. “The mythical ‘system’ – it was actually an absence of a system – continued to be the Senate’s operating cultural norm, even after the 1960s when the rules were changed so that senators could no longer hang around past age seventy-five, simply because it was embedded in the very fabric of the place”.
To win appointment to the Senate, he writes, is to join a kind of priesthood and face “the intimidating power and dumb inertia that had lumbered along for centuries.”
Our Scandalous Senate correctly notes the misconduct of senators has moved talk of abolition from the lunatic fringe to mainstream discourse of Canadian politics. Boyer also neatly dispenses with the mythology of Senate reform – the long, tiresome campaign by reformers who convinced themselves the Upper House was somehow malformed by patronage, and that highly technical changes in the rules would return the Senate to its pure Confederation roots.
In truth the Senate is exactly what it was supposed to be: the invention of political fixers who were trying to build a country. “By creating two houses for Parliament, it was possible to persuade Quebecers to agree to ‘representation by population’ in the Commons, where they knew they would be outnumbered, since they would be guaranteed the condition of equality in the Senate. Quebec and Ontario got twenty-four senators each,” Boyer notes. “‘On no other condition,’ said George Brown, one of the Fathers of Confederation, ‘could we have advanced a step.’”
These are the worst days for the Senate: Three members are suspended; one resigned under investigation; five others quit in apparent dismay.
These are also the best days for the Senate. Members killed a union-busting Bill C-377 that was almost certainly unconstitutional. They exposed a mean-spirited clause in an omnibus budget bill to give police warrant-free access to tax returns. Senators have convened landmark hearings on bitcoin; public broadcasting; credit fees; cross-border pricing; Official Languages communities; aquaculture and the collapse of the Atlantic lobster fishery.
“Senators are good people,” Boyer notes; “Many have rich contributions to make to public affairs, and try gamely through the muted channels of the Senate to do so.”
The contributors will be the salvation of the Senate in the end.
By Holly Doan
Our Scandalous Senate by J. Patrick Boyer; Dundurn Press; 392 pages; ISBN 9781-4597-23665; $24.99