The Rorschach Senate

This past week, with not one but two Senate stories dominating the Canadian media coverage, we have been subjected to a number of intellectually lazy editorials about how these are somehow an indictment of the Senate as a whole, and that this should be a rallying cry for reform. No, seriously – somehow the May/December romance of one Senator, and the onset of dementia in another is somehow proof that appointing Senators is a problem. But it shouldn’t surprise me that any Senate story immediately becomes some kind of quasi-Rorschach test that the under-informed pundit class projects their pet theories on Senate reform onto.

Nevertheless, there was a pretty special level of cluelessness that pervaded Stephen Maher’s Thursday column (which somehow made it onto A1 of the Ottawa Citizen), whereby Maher somehow seemed to be indicating that elections magically prevent the onset of dementia, and that we would never have had Senator Brazeau calling a reporter a bitch over Twitter, or Senator Zimmer’s May/December romance if they needed to stand for election. No, really – that was his argument.

So I asked him – did elections somehow prevent Rob Anders from attacking Nelson Mandela, or Vic Toews from impregnating that assistant (which later led to his messy divorce and eventually VikiLeaks)? “Both those people have been re-elected, so I guess their constituents don’t mind. The voters are always right,” Maher responded. And when I pointed out that it negated his argument that elections would prevent either Brazeau or Zimmer from sitting, he responded “Well I don’t know if it does. Nobody would vote for those guys. People do vote for Toews and Anders.” And yet that was the argument in his column – “And the prospect of elections might prevent embarrassments, in part because only professional politicians would get elected. Conservative Patrick Brazeau, who called a reporter a bitch on Twitter, would never get elected. Neither would Liberal Rod Zimmer, and his odd marriage would have remained a private matter.” Which we know is clearly not the case. Professional politicians didn’t get elected by and large in Quebec’s NDP caucus last election. And people like Anders and Toews get elected, despite the fact that they have clearly had public lapses of far worse varieties than Brazeau or Zimmer.

But that’s part of the problem with stories like this – that there is a class of political observer who is so wed to their notions of “reform” that they don’t actually follow through to see if any of their arguments hold water, let alone have a logical follow-through of consequences. Maher, who is committed to the notions of an elected Senate, an elected head of state and proportional representation, can’t articulate any particular reasons why these would be good things other than to laziest argument of all – that our current system is “outdated.” Which it clearly is not, since last I checked responsible government didn’t have an expiry date attached to it, but regardless, it’s the same kind of lazy arguing that then gets ported over to the columns themselves.

And so I ask again, to Maher and any other columnist who has declared this week that these two Senate stories are an indictment of the institution as a whole – how is the Senate responsible for the onset of Senator Fairbairn’s dementia? Or Senator Zimmer’s marriage? It’s not, and to suggest otherwise is intellectually bankrupt. Are there questions as to how quickly the Liberal leadership in the Senate allowed Fairbairn to keep acting in her capacity? Sure – but we’re not privy to all of the details because medical information is private, and we don’t have any particular definition of what constitutes “competence.” And all indications are that the caucus was working on an exit plan, as she was no longer assigned to any committee work and any of the few votes she participated in were not exactly something that was going to change the course of legislation. (Seriously – twelve votes in four months is practically nothing in the grand scheme of the work of the Senate). How could an elected Senate have prevented any of these issues, if an elected House of Commons can’t prevent its own bozo eruptions or sexual improprieties (and if you don’t think they happen, perhaps you should ask yourself why the Clerk of the Commons needs to pull all of the female pages aside at the beginning of every year to have a special talk with them)? It couldn’t.

If you want to argue for Senate reform, then go ahead, but do it on its merits – or what you perceive its merits to be, because I can assure you that I will argue each of them down. (And no, “because it’s modern” is not a merit, nor is “surely anything is better than what we have now.”) If you want to make partisan attacks against the Liberals in the Senate, then do so openly, and not in the cowardly manner that the anonymous Conservative senator did earlier this week when he called up Jonathan Kay and made a bunch of ridiculous and frankly slanderous accusations behind the veil of anonymity.

But to try and couch either your calls for reform or partisan attacks behind either Senators Fairbairn or Zimmer is intellectually and morally bankrupt, and it’s unbecoming of the journalistic profession.