The straw men of the Senate

In the week leading up to Parliament’s return, the NDP decided to launch a pre-emptive strike against the Senate as part of their ongoing abolition campaign.  Their preferred tactic this time?  Supposed facts around attendance and votes.  The problem, of course, was in the framing of those figures, and how they were denuded of context.

Take their release around the ten worst attendance records according to the publicly available documents.  While one name in particular stands out, that being Senator Patrick Brazeau, whose attendance has been the issue of stories in the past, most of the other names on the list will have legitimate reasons for absences.  For example, at least two of the names on that list are Senators who have publicly addressed health concerns in the past, one of them stepping away from a high-profile committee role because of heart trouble.  For the NDP to single these senators out and ignore their health concerns sounds an awful lot like the kinds of “dirty politics” that they publicly eschew.

There are others in the list as well who may not have health concerns, but who have taken on additional duties.  One such senator on the list is Hugh Segal, who was appointed the country’s Special Envoy to the Commonwealth, and has been playing an important role there, especially in the lead-up to the meeting in Sri Lanka this fall that Stephen Harper publicly refused to attend, a move the NDP agreed with.  That the person working behind the scenes to get changes made was being singled out is a slight against his character.  Another senator on that list is one who takes foreign diplomats up to Fort McMurray in order to show them what goes on and to foster dialogue about the environment and sustainable development.  But that’s apparently an inexcusable “absence.”

What goes unsaid in that release is that MPs’ attendance records are not publicly available.  Rather, MPs self-report their attendance to their caucus whips, and those records are kept private.  Senators have been publicly declaring their attendance since the days of the Andy Thompson scandal – the truant Senator who spent most of his time in Mexico – and indeed there are provisions for Senators to have their pay docked if they miss a certain number of sessions without a medical note.  It’s a level of transparency and accountability that doesn’t exist in the Commons – not that the NDP would mention that.  One might also add that there were a couple of their own MPs whose prolonged absence from the Commons I did note as well, for what it’s worth.

Further releases last week tried to portray the Senate as unable to hold the government to account because they held far fewer votes than the Commons did.  Except once again, this was a figure that was taken wildly out of context.  For starters, not every vote in the Senate is a standing vote as nearly all are in the Commons.  Most of the time, Senators are content to hold voice votes, or to call them “on division,” which means that they object to its passage but note that they don’t have enough votes to block it.  This is somehow an abdication of their duty.

There remains also the fact that the Senate did not have a lot of legislation to deal with, because the House had passed very little over the course of the session to date.  Add to that, a good percentage of those votes in the House were procedural – almost daily there were votes on either time allocation, or to proceed directly to government business, or other kinds of tactics employed by either the government or the opposition.  That they didn’t take place in the Senate – in part because the rules there preclude time allocation or other devices for shutting down debate – should not be some kind of indictment against the institution.

And then there is the perennial NDP straw man that the Senate is supposed to be a non-partisan body.  Many of their arguments are created in such as way as to propose that the Senate should do away with partisanship (on the road to abolition, of course), but nowhere have they explained why, against all wisdom, history and common sense, we suddenly need a technocratic institution in our Parliament rather than the less partisan one that we have now.  In fact, partisanship is actually one of the checks and balances within our system, to ensure that we have an active exchange of ideas.  Why this is apparently a bad thing is beyond me.

More than anything, this exercise of trying to build a case against the Senate using out-of-context figures seems to be a campaign that is built more to attack straw men than it is to address any of the issues with the actual institution.  I’ve spoken to a number of NDP partisans who will privately agree that the Senate does some really good work around policy and in their committee study, but they simply dare not say it in public lest they be shown to be ideologically incorrect.  When asked how they would replicate those best aspects of the Senate if it were abolished or to get some of the talent like Senators Dallaire or Ogilvy who wouldn’t run for office otherwise, they offer an unconvincing “surely in a House of Commons reformed with proportional representation, we can allocate seats for these kinds of eminent Canadians.”  Except that such a system would offer none of the institutional independence that the current Senate enjoys.

Above all, if the best that the NDP can offer in their campaign to abolish the Senate are red herrings and straw men rather than actual facts or condemnations about the system as it exists, then perhaps it speaks to the hollowness of their arguments.  If they can’t base their attacks on reality, then one might venture that it says more about their ideology and their tactics than it does about the Senate itself.


Other articles by Dale Smith

Should Trudeau be able to charge speaking fees?

Committing to open nominations

The Angus Standard On Election Rules

Vacant senate seats breaking Confederation’s promises

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale


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