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Ask Kady Anything

Kady defends the Senate, and uses her three Parliamentary wishes to fix the House of Commons.

Ask Kady Anything: In defence of the Senate, and three wishes

Greetings, parliamentary zealots, political enthusiasts and curious onlookers! Welcome to another edition of #AskKady!

First up, a pair of thematically linked, but separate questions on one of my two favourite chambers of parliament!

Jenn Jeffreys (@JennJeffreys) asks:

Meanwhile, John MacLean‏ (@jmaxxd1) wonders:

First off, a disclosure that likely won’t come as a shock to anyone who has ever read/seen/heard any of my rantings and/or ravings on the subject over the years: I have long been, and steadfastly remain, a staunch defender of the Senate, both in theory and in practice — and no, not because I’m hoping to end up serving in it one day.

Not to sound like a parliamentary Pollyanna, but I really do believe that the collective wisdom and insight and, crucially, independent approach that both the chamber and its occupants collectively and respectively bring to the table (or, depending on context, floor) more than make up for “all the corruption” — and I’d also challenge that modifier, as I also believe it remains the exception rather than the rule.

OK, I absolutely get why my view is very much in the minority, even amongst my fellow parliamentary nerds.

But the thing is, I’ve also sat through enough Senate committee meetings where one member after another asked probing, intelligent questions about the possible unintended consequences of a seemingly insignificant sub-clause in a bill that previously sailed through the House without raising so much as an eyebrow on either side of the aisle, only to undergo a critical last-minute rewrite in the Senate.

I’ve sat, rapt, as those same senators debate the principle of a bill with far more nuance and depth than one ever sees during similar exchanges in the Commons.

If I had to pick one recent issue with which to make my case for the continued existence of the Senate, it would have to be the debate over the physician-assisted dying legislation, which was the first big test of the independents appointed under Justin Trudeau’s independent selection process.

The verdict: Despite the continued accusations emanating from the Conservatives that they were beholden to the man who signed off on their nominations, they seemed just as, if not more willing, to challenge the conclusions of their duly elected colleagues, even if in the end, the Senate backed down, at least in part.

To segue to John’s question — yes, that spirit of independence does seem to be spreading through the Senate, as the number of capital-I Independents within the ranks continues to climb.

The institution itself, mind you, has always been voraciously protective of its status as a fully autonomous House, and not simply a rubber stamp for the government of the day.

(Up until the last few years, that was true on both the government and opposition sides, but it’s fair to say that, towards the end of the Harper era, Conservative senators did seem far more micromanaged by the prime minister’s office than had been the case under any previous prime minister.)

Anyway, for those few, brave remaining readers who made it through the preceding text with eyes resolutely unglazed over, I think the Senate is required as a check on the power of the executive, since it is increasingly populated by parliamentarians over whom the prime minister of the day — or, for that matter, the prime minister of tomorrow — has absolutely no control.

And, to answer the obvious rejoinder: I absolutely agree that the Senate needs to come up with a way to police — and, when necessary, sanction — its members, which is pretty much what it is collectively working on now, in the aftermath of that toe-curlingly scathing report on Senator Don Meredith’s alleged sexual exploits with a teenage girl, as well as the less salacious but similarly eyebrow-raising comments made by Sen. Lynn Beyak lamenting the failure to “focus on the good” within the residential school system.

My guess is that the eventual model will include a range of sanctions — which, in the case of Meredith, could range from simple censure to a suspension, and very possibly even permanent expulsion. Beyak, meanwhile, is under increasing pressure to step down from the Senate aboriginal affairs committee, which she is thus far refusing to do, raising the question of how — or if — she can be removed from the committee by force.

In the meantime, while I fully admit to finding it fascinating to watch a century-and-a-half-old legislative body literally reconstruct itself in real time, and mostly in public, I also get why so many others are thoroughly fed up and ready to, as the New Democrats put it, “roll up the red carpet.”

Joanna Lam wants to know:

Only three wishes? But that would barely get me started! (I assume there’s no wiggle room along the lines of making my last wish for three more wishes, over and over again.)

Fine, fine.

  • Wish #1: Adopt the aesthetic of the mother parliament at Westminster by replacing the desk-and-chair setup with proper, old-school benches and dropping assigned seating in favour of the first-come-first-serve approach in order to encourage MPs to show up well before question period (or any other hotly anticipated House event) to make sure they get a good spot. There’s nothing more disheartening than to see MPs on House duty dolefully addressing a sea of empty chairs, so I’d support just about any change that would provide more incentive to actually spend time in the chamber.
  • Wish #2: Rework the House rules to relax some of the more rigid restrictions on debate: Drop the requirement that MPs address each other through the speaker, and not directly, in order to foster more actual interaction between members, and allow more time for questions and comments, even if it means cutting into time limits on opening speeches. That, in combination with the cozier feel brought on by the benches, should make it feel more like a town hall meeting and less like an airport waiting area.
  • Wish #3: Start a major campaign to get more people to drop by to watch the House while its sitting — and not just during QP or a particularly high-stakes vote. While I would never suggest unplugging the cameras (though I would give the operators far more leeway in filming the proceedings, including pans, cutaways and reaction shots), I feel like MPs might be more inspired to do more than just scroll through their tablets while someone else is speaking if there was a live studio audience in place.

Have a burning question about Parliamentary procedure? A desperate wish to know more about our democratic history? A pressing need to learn about our constitutional framework?

Tweet at @Kady, or send us a question on Facebook, and our resident wonk might answer it on next week’s edition of Ask Kady Anything.

Cover: Vice illustration

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