A Scandal in Two Institutions: The Senate Half
Nov 22, 2013

A Scandal in Two Institutions: The Senate Half

What has become known as the Senate Scandal is really a scandal in two institutions: the Senate, of course, but also the PMO.

The PMO half of this scandal was written here. What follows is the Senate half of the scandal:

One of the advantages of living in a (relatively) functioning first world democracy is that we are (relatively) unburdened by the kinds of systemic corruption that plagues other polities. Cases of direct financial payoff - suitcases full of cash changing hands in empty parking lot in exchange for political favours - is relatively low. Where in countries with far worse transparency, accountability, and rule of law endemic corruption is just a reality of doing business, in countries like Canada it is pretty rare. That the biggest scandal in Canadian politics since the Sponsership Scandal originated in four Senators abusing rules to enrich themselves shows just how rare this is.

However, just because physical cash doesn't usually change hands, doesn't meant the basic mechanism of a quid pro quo change. Instead, the more egregious corruption gets replaced with a softer form where it is legal, official acts but whose functional role is similar to their illegal, unofficial version. Instead of bags of cash to buy off politicians, it is things like campaign contributions or expectations of future cushy industry jobs that get offered in a quid pro quo for past or future loyalty and political favours.

The Senate is Canada's most glaring example of this kind of officially sanctioned corruption. At its core, the Senate is a tax payer funded patronage system for the currently sitting Prime Minister. It is a way of rewarding people who have been faithful and useful to the PM with a cushy job for life. It is perhaps the most monetarily valuable political reward possible to give someone in our political system, and given as a quid pro quo to those who have been loyal and useful.

When Harper appointed Brazeau, Wallin and Duffy, all three were exactly this situation, either as important members on the Conservative fundraising circuit or a useful ally for a particular target demographic in Brazeau's case. The Senate is not expected to do much, and Senators are not meant to have influence on the shape of Canadian society; it just rubber stamps House legislation. Even if one takes its ostensible role as the chamber of sober second thought seriously, the legislative review process takes place in committee that a Senator such as Brazeau need not put any effort into.

The problem is not the few hundred thousand taken outside of the official rules and any reasonable interpretation of the ideas behind these rules.The entire institution and its staggering costs play a very similar role of conferring a political reward funded by the taxpayer. If you are outraged at the thought of politicians enriching themselves on the public purse without performing any meaningful service to Canadians, the entire Senate should be up for question, not just Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau.

The problem is even more than just the financial costs. The problem is the incentive structure that is created. Because of the ability to dangle such incredibly lucrative perks, it entrenches loyalty and homogeneity within the party. The middle ranked movers and shakers have a massive incentive to toe the party line, not to challenge the leadership, and to simply enact the leaderships vision because if they do this well enough, and loyally enough, they may receive the cushy job for life benefit. In the House of Common the reward is less financial: party loyalty takes you from an influential backbencher into the more influential cabinet. That incentive promotes solidarity and stifles intraparty adversarial debate. The massive financial reward of a possible Senate appointment supercharges the several incentives that already exist towards party homogeneity, and further exacerbate the problems I outlined in the PMO half of this scandal.

In an ideal representative democracy, representatives would have appeasing their own constituents as their only or dominant incentive. When you have things like the need to attract donations from big monied interest groups, the need to work within party infrastructure to attract such donations, and desires to move up within the party hierarchy to positions of higher financial reward or political influence, these things create additional incentives. The more of these incentives you create, and the more powerful they are, the less representatives are beholden to their own constituents and the more they are to these other interests. The Senate provides precisely such a powerful financial incentive and as such is not just an expensive appendix that could be excised, is an institution that is actively harming our democratic processes.

While I disagree with his limited scope, I have always agreed with Harper about the importance of Senate reform, even if I think the reform to be implemented is abolishment. Almost any reform, however, would be better than the status quo. As the scandal broke, I hoped that we would see some momentum for actual change, a hope that is waning as time goes gone. If nothing else, this scandal should clearly emphasize for everyone the need to change this broken institution.

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