Once more, the NDP have decided that the constitution be damned, it’s time to pull another too-cute-by-half stunt when it comes to the Senate. Indeed, their Wednesday opposition day motion will be to de-fund the Senate by Canada Day – as though that would actually be something feasible, or without any consequences.
Let’s start with the constitutional reality. The Constitution, which I will remind you is not just a suggestion, stipulates that legislation be passed by both the Commons and the Senate. It’s not exactly something is an option when it comes to the way legislation works. You need a functional Senate to pass said legislation, otherwise the system grinds to a halt. And to have a functional Senate, it requires money.
This is the point where particularly smart-assed answers start flowing from the NDP. Mathieu Ravignat told iPolitics’ Colin Horgan yesterday that if these Senators were really committed to public service, well, they could do the Senate’s business as “volunteer work.” No, seriously – he said that. The same goes for staff, clerks, translators – you name it. Apparently, the institution is so “rotten to the core” that nobody deserves money. Um, okay.
Here’s the thing with that. Either you’d create a system of parliamentary slaves (as one commenter put it), or you create an even more elite and entitled system than they accuse of already existing. Because who has the time and money to sit in the Senate for no money, travelling from their home region to Ottawa and back, and maintaining a second residence in the capital (or money enough for hotel bills)? That’s right – the super-wealthy. As it stands, you have a lot of people of fairly modest means in the Senate who got appointed because they do good work in whatever field they happen to be in, like a Romeo Dallaire. And while the NDP likes to claim that Senators live lavish lifestyles on the taxpayer’s dime, well, those MP make a good $25,000 per year more than the Senators do.
As for the quality of an entirely volunteer-run Senate, well, that’s also part of the problem. You see, with the years of experience that Senators accumulate, and the long-term perspective that they develop, it serves as a counterbalance to the amateurism of a Commons whose membership turns over frequently and is focused on the next electoral cycle. They do a lot of the adult work, like scrutiny of regulations and the boring stuff that most MPs can’t be bothered to do. They have to catch stuff when MPs don’t do their due diligence, as seems to be happening with an increasing number of bills these days. How exactly one expects these Senators and their staff to develop the experience, expertise and perspective on a volunteer basis also defies logic.
Then there’s the reality of the politics of such a move. That is, going about this believing that there would be no consequences to going to war with the other House of Parliament. It’s like the NDP doesn’t have any bills that they want the Senate to pass. As it stands, most Senators are not keen on the kinds of insults that the NDP throw at them, and they usually won’t go out of their way to sponsor bills if the NDP simply expects them to pass them out of hand without even the courtesy of being asked. Funny that.
Now imagine the next set of Estimates that the Senate is expected to examine and pass. Suddenly, a Senate whose perfectly legitimate appropriations are under attack gets to look at the appropriations that the Commons demands. Do they think that the Senate would be disposed to doing so? And it’s not hard to come up with reasons why they would want to. After all, if MPs were committed to public service, why shouldn’t they do it on a volunteer basis? The same goes for their staff, and the translators, and clerks, and even the guards and janitorial staff. There’s also the issue of transparency – money going into the Commons appropriations is like tossing it into a black hole where nobody knows where it goes. MPs don’t post their quarterly expenses or travel claims, and we’ve already seen elected officials in numerous spending and expense scandals, both here in the Commons, in provincial legislatures, or in the UK Commons. It sure sounds like an institution that’s rotten to the core, where the more you scratch away at the surface you’ll find all kinds of misspending. Why should they continue to throw good money after that, and pass those appropriations? Because remember – the Senate has an absolute veto. They don’t tend to use it, but in the interests of the taxpayers and the spirit of public service, well, they can send the Estimates back to the Commons and say sorry, we don’t approve of your appropriations.
Do you see where this is heading?
Everything about this stunt reeks of amateurism, and like a group of ideologues that haven’t a clue about the constitutional or political reality of this country. “Fanciful nonsense,” as political scientist Emmett Macfarlane put it. And that’s about it.