Will Brazeau provide the needed momentum for Senate reform?
Feb 14, 2013

Will Brazeau provide the needed momentum for Senate reform?

For years, one of the few things that I have agreed with Harper has been on the issue of Senate reform. I don't necessarily agree on all the details, and I think the NDP's idea of abolishing the senate over reforming it holds some merit, but to the general spirit that there is something seriously wrong with the Canadian Senate I could not agree more. It is ineffective and costly, stuffed full of partisan patronage appointments with little hope for any third parties; all points, incidentally, that Harper has made in the past.

Yet it has been with something of dismay to see Harper having so egregiously abusing the Senate in precisely the way he so long lamented. I wrote a year an a half ago about the highly undemocratic - no, anti-democratic - appointing of people who had literally just lost elections to run as MPs but got rewarded with the effectively lifetime Senate jobs instead when the people rejected them.

The drama surrounding Patrick Brazeau has managed to bring more attention to the Senate than it has seen under Harper's governance. A party leader cannot be held responsible if one of his members commits a crime like the alleged sexual assault. However, Brazeau paints just such a poignant picture of precisely the kinds of patronage appointments that makes the need for Senate reform so strong. The arrest, coincidentally, happens right at the time he is being accused of abuses on claiming housing expenses in the Senate. Brazeau has a long  history of working incredibly little in the Senate (and inappropriately lashing out at journalists asking questions about this). In addition to troubling accusations made before his appointment to the Senate, any time he has blipped onto my radar in the last few years (outside of an amusing charity fight with Justin Trudeau that he lost) has been the result of outrageous comments being made by him. Quite frankly, the man simply does not deserve to be a Senator.

But he is a Senator, our youngest in fact. During the 2008-2009 prorogation crisis he was one of a bunch of Conservative patronage appointments. Previously, he had led a politically valuable aboriginal group that had helped the Conservatives in the election and was promptly rewarded for it. It is a sort of political lottery, where the winners get a cushy six figure job for life, and an ability to abdicate much of the responsibility for this position precisely as Brazeau did. It isn't just that he has an alleged pattern of sexual assault and current troubles with the law. Ignore all of that and Brazeau still iconifies precisely what is wrong with our current Senate.

It is a slightly tricky hand for Harper to play, because while this situation can be a rallying call for the need for Senate reform, it is also more than a little bit of egg on Harper's face. He should swallow his pride, and redoubled efforts for Senate reform. The spotlight is firmly on the Senate, and if he is to be taken seriously at desiring Senate reform, he should capitalize on that attention despite the cognitive dissonance. When the Supreme court gets back to him on constitutionality questions, he should move quickly. In the ridiculous short 5 week legislative session in British Columbia that has just begun, one of the few items on the agenda (outside of reverting back to PST) is to accept provincial election of Senators. This is a small step, but one that should be embraced.

A tactical argument against small reforms?
Some, such as many in the NDP, may oppose my endorsement of Harper's limited reforms, under the assumption that much more dramatic reform is need, up to an including abolishment of the Senate. Supporting small reforms now, like elected Senators with ten year terms, may reduce the chance of more important reform down the road. This is largely why the NDP has played an obstructionist role recently on Senate reform (and not at all because they approve of the status quo). I don't entirely reject this argument. However, I think that realpolitik demands in this case that we accept, for now, a situation that is practical and could certainly occur that makes a genuine improvements. If there is sufficient momentum for a big change, with big constitutional ramifications, that momentum will not be stopped by a few tweaks. But with the NDP having no shot at governance until 2015, and most likely a coalition or minority government as their best hope even then, we should take the improvement now.

A pattern of ignoring excess:
Before Brazeau, it was ex Minister of International Development Bev Oda who took the crown as the most prominent Conservative to come down in flames entirely due to her own, ridiculous, pattern of an inability to restrain herself from going way over the top to spend tax payer money for own petty purposes. Or there was Chief of Defense Staff Gen. Walt Natynczyk's million dollar bill on government flights for things like Military Appreciation Nights at NHL games. Or Defense Minister Peter Mackay's use of Search and Rescue aircraft following a vacation. In the aftermath of the attention given due to Brazeau, light is being brought on Senator Pamela Wallin, a big mover and shaker in donor circles for the Conservative party, for her $300,000 dollars in airfare charges for travel that appear to be at least in part for partisan purposes.

For a party allegedly focused on accountability, fiscal responsibility and respect for tax payers, there is a surprisingly amount of turning of blind eyes at examples of excess. Bev Oda, for instance, had a long and established pattern yet it was allowed to continue for decades. Ditto Brazeau.  I think there is a case to be made that there is pattern of ignoring excess with their ranks. Note that I don't say necessarily a culture of excess itself, for these cases are still too limited to justify that. However, when such excesses occur, the Conservative party has consistently turned a blind eye until something particularly egregious occurs like Brazeau or Oda's respective downfalls.  They can, and should, do better.

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