The new independent Senate isn’t all that improved

In 150 years, the Canadian Senate hasn’t done us any good.

It’s mostly been a useless sort of place – only really effective as a comfy nest for political insiders, donors and heirs to great fortunes.

But, on the other hand, the Senate’s done little real harm. Sure, it has the power to propose and amend bills without democratic legitimacy, and that’s an offensive concept. But in practice, as long as the Senate remained a useless place and Senators didn’t act too stupidly, Canadians preferred to just let things be.

But at times even that has been asking too much.

The Senate spending scandal exposed a cartel of greed. About half of us then concluded the stupidity was too much – the useless place should become a part of our feudal history.

But the senatorial class was rescued by a glossy youngish politician raised among them, Justin Trudeau. He got elected with a plan to release Senators from caucus discipline and appoint better noblemen and women.

And to the great relief of the Senators, the useless place was repackaged and resold by the Liberal government as the independent Senate.

Unfortunately, we can now see an independent Senate doesn’t solve an old problem – and adds a new one.

The old problem is how to get rid of a disgraced Senator.

MPs who behave badly are judged by the people at election time. But misbehaving Senators have a job until they quit at 75.

We’ve recently heard about Senator Don Meredith and his extra-marital affair with a 16 year-old. We’ve read Senator Lynn Beyak defend the residential schools system which was created to annihilate indigenous cultures.

Yet Meredith and Beyak are both still Senators, collecting paycheques and voting on bills. And there will be more senatorial bad behaviour in the future, regardless of vetting, because humans do that.

There’s talk that Senators could fire any misbehaving Senator through a Senate vote. But turning the Senate into a vindictive, poisonous, political cauldron seems unlikely to achieve even-handed and clean outcomes. And many don’t believe our constitution would even allow it.

So independence hasn’t solved the old problem of disgraced Senators. And the new problem is increased democratic interference.

Before the independent Senate we had the useless Senate. Parties controlled Senators through caucus discipline. Party leaders were held accountable if unelected Senators tried to frustrate the will of the elected Commons. So party leaders restrained their Senators. Democracy was protected.

But now the restraints are off. And some Senators feel empowered to act as if they had some shred of democratic legitimacy. Last spring, they battled the Commons over C-14, the bill on assisted suicide. This winter the senatorial class amended the Commons’ Bill C-4 to make it harder for common people to form a union.

Let’s be clear, it’s not partisanship. It wasn’t just Conservative Senators who voted to weaken workplace rights. Four Senate Liberals and two Trudeau-appointed independents also voted to amend C-4. One Conservative went the other way. This is the independent Senate acting independently, interfering in democracy.

If Senators want to collect handsome paycheques until age 75 in a job with little accountability, take a lesson from the Queen. Fade back and don’t interfere. Senators, don’t be stupid, go back to being useless.

Tom Parkin is a former NDP staffer and social democrat media commentator

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