May 31, 2013

Trouble in Canada's upper house

By PETER BLACK, Canadian Dispatch

---- — A few years back, when Mike Duffy was a respected TV journalist and faithful habitué of the Parliamentary press club bar and office party circuit, he was called “senator” because of his (what we thought to be) joking desire to be named to the chamber of “sober second thought” — a description provided by Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, a notorious boozer.

Duffy’s whimsical wish came true in December 2008, a little more than two months after a controversial bit of journalism on his part, which analysts say helped Conservative leader Stephen Harper get elected prime minister.

Duffy, at the time the host of a politics program on a conservative-leaning network, aired an interview with then-Liberal party leader Stephane Dion in which Dion asked for clarification of a question posed by another interviewer from the same network. Duffy played it as an example of Dion’s faulty grasp of English.

The exchange aired days before the federal election, which polls showed to be a close race to that point.

The Canadian media ethics panel later ruled that the network in question and Duffy in particular had breached journalistic ethics.

Regardless, the affable Duffy reaped his reward and as a newly minted senator became an eager asset on the Conservative fundraising tour. But lately Duffy has been somewhat of a liability to Harper and the Conservatives, to the point that there is a renewed call to do something, anything, about Canada’s federal upper house.

American readers, accustomed to the immense power of the Senate, might have some difficulty grasping the function, let alone the continued existence of the Senate of Canada, which sits in a rather impressively ornate red-upholstered chamber.

The key distinction is that while the 100 American senators must seek election every six years, Canadian senators are appointed at the pleasure of the prime minister and sit, virtually untouchable, until forced into retirement at age 75 (it used to be life.)

For decades, there’s been grumbling about the Senate as an unelected, unaccountable, privileged bastion for friends of the party in power.

Sure, it does lots of good work, preparing reports and launching committees into various important issues. Most importantly, its assent is required under the Constitution for any legislation passed by the House of Commons.

But back to Mike Duffy. Recently, he and a few other senators were investigated for misuse of expenses provided by the Senate. The heart of the issue is the principal residence of the expense claimant. In Duffy’s case, he claimed to be a resident of Prince Edward Island, when, in fact, he has been a citizen of Ottawa for decades.

So, busted and all that, but what made matters worse was that information leaked out that the prime minister’s chief of staff had cut Duffy a personal check for $90,000 to cover the amount the senator was required to pay back. This public revelation provoked the chief of staff — the PM’s right-hand man — to resign.

Duffy has since left the Conservative caucus, and earlier this week a Senate committee voted to have the Mounties look into his expenses.

The irony of the Duffy scandal is that in an earlier life Stephen Harper, the man who appointed him and almost half of the current chamber’s 105 seats, had been one of the most outspoken advocates of Senate reform.

Apart from the province of Alberta “electing” a senator back in 1989 in a contrived vote, which the prime minister at the time accepted, little has changed in the quest to have at least a meaningful debate on the future of the Senate.

History and tradition say the Senate can neither be modified significantly nor abolished without going through a full-blown constitutional amendment process involving all 10 provinces. Harper has asked the Supreme Court to examine that question.

In the meantime, barring bad attendance, bankruptcy or the commission of treason or a felony, a senator gets to keep his or her perch until the legal retirement age.

Which means that Senator Duffy, assuming he is innocent of all of the above, is good to go until 2021.

Peter Black is a radio broadcaster and writer based in Quebec City. He has worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, in Montreal as a newspaper reporter and editor, and as a translator and freelance writer.