The Toronto Star

So … what do you do exactly?
The Senate can be boring, riveting and at times silly. It’s also seen by many as vital to our democracy. Joanna Smith drops by to soak up the wisdom

Joanna Smith

A blond woman in a dark suit reads carefully from a sheet of paper about a group of award-winning young innovators.

Her audience is partly rapt but also composing emails, reading the newspaper, quietly whispering.

Her words also bounce off empty seats.

“(One young woman), motivated by her mother who suffers from chronic pain, developed a new pain relief substance using hot peppers and leeches that is already being recognized by the medical and pharmaceutical world,” Pamela Wallin, a veteran broadcaster and rookie Conservative senator from Saskatchewan says with a chuckle to scattered applause from the red-carpeted room.

In the back row, her fellow newbie Patrick Brazeau puts away his package of photocopied news clippings in time for oral questions, only to become engrossed in a game of what appears to be Sudoku.

Senator Mike Duffy, who ambled in a little late to sit down in his seat closer to the centre of the row, soon looks up from his mobile device to notice the lone individual sitting in the press gallery – usually an abandoned space outside of throne speeches and constitutional squabbles of decades past – and begins consulting with a nearby colleague about what she could possibly be doing up there.

She was watching the Senate in all its glory and trying to figure out first- hand what the so-called house of sober second thought is all about.

Conclusions are mixed.

It can be boring. It can be riveting. It can be silly. It can be vital to democracy and even those who complain about it argue it would be nigh impossible to abolish without the threat of creating some prime ministerial dictatorship.

Wallin grabs her jacket and her handbag and, smiling, leaves the chamber.

“The Senate is likely the least admired and least well known of our national political institutions,” wrote Serge Joyal, a senator himself (Lib. Quebec) in the introduction to a book he edited called Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew (2003). “Its work attracts neither the interest of the media, the respect of elected politicians, the sympathy of the public, nor even the curiosity of academia.

“How paradoxical that very few Canadians have an understanding of the history, role, and operations of the Senate, and yet everyone seems to have an opinion on the institution.”

The political science basics of the Senate are straightforward enough. Its members are appointed by the governor general (on the advice of the prime minister, who is really calling the shots) and get to keep the job until they are 75.

Their unelected status and long tenure are intended to shield the senators from the whims of polls and partisanship as they review legislation in the hope of catching flaws in hastily passed bills that could lead to unintended consequences.

They hardly live in a bubble, but it would be fair to say that Senate committees tend to feature more focused questions, longer-term reasoning than the fiery preambles and filibusters that often take centre stage at committees in the House of Commons.

The Senate is home to 53 Liberals, 46 Conservatives and six others who prefer other labels. Ridiculed, misunderstood or just plain ignored, the Senate is under renewed scrutiny after a year in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed 27 new members, a record for a calendar year.

“Um, what did I think of the Senate before?” says Jim Munson, a Liberal senator from Ontario, who in his former life was a Parliament Hill reporter. “I suppose I was like any other reporter – looked at the Senate from a distance. But once you get on the inside, the distance is gone.”

He likes the longer-term perspective. He likes being able to make his case in the office of a minister.

And while Munson gets “irritated” when Justice Minister Rob Nicholson claims the Liberal majority in the Senate has been stonewalling the Conservative government’s crime bills – “It’s simply not true,” Munson says – he is unabashed about the opposition opposing the government.

“We also have, we believe, a fundamental role in representing those who did not vote Conservative, who do believe in child care, who do believe – and I’m sounding very partisan now, but it’s true,” says Munson, the opposition whip in the Senate.

Gerald Comeau, the soft-spoken, proud Acadian who serves as deputy government leader in the Senate, believes the partisan tone is beginning to take over – in the chamber if not in committees – although it has not gone “overboard” like it did during the heated debates over the GST in the early 1990s, when he was a rookie senator.

(“I don’t think at any point in history was the Senate held in lesser regard, ” Comeau says of those days.)

But he feels the past few years of minority governments have aligned the Senate more closely with the Commons so that questions asked by senators sometimes echo those of MPs.

“Why go there?” he asks.

“To me it should be embarrassing to have the same question in both chambers.”

Comeau admits that when he was an MP he thought all legislators should be elected. He said he changed his mind for a time, but has come back to that opinion, so much so that he quickly retracts the word “represent” when he talks about what senators do for the interests of Canadians.

He argues elections can be held without constitutional amendments.

As an example, he points to the situation of his colleague Bert Brown, whom Harper picked to be a senator in 2007 after he was elected in an Alberta referendum in 1998 and 2004. (Brown was passed over by former prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin.) Brown is quick to provide a solid defence of the Senate, which he has said many believe is filled with “old party bagmen.”

There are many changes he would love to see – including election of senators and fewer delays he blames on increased partisanship among Liberals – but abolishing it is out of the question.

“You literally have no constitutional words that limit the power of the prime minister with a majority government,” Brown says.

“Theoretically, they could just about pass any bill they want to regardless of support in the country, and without the Senate there would be no way to stop it and so it would become very strong – almost a dictatorship.”

A sober(ing) thought indeed.