Reports about the behaviour of some Senators have once again unleashed a flurry of demands to either abandon or at least reform that venerable institution. Defenders refer to the Senate as the “Chamber of Sober Second Thought.” It is not how the Constitution defines it, although sobriety may have been a consideration in the days of Sir John A. Macdonald. Reflecting on recent reports, I doubt the capacity of individuals who stand accused of assault, or who are uncertain about the province of their residence, to entertain a thought of any kind, first or second, sober or otherwise.
There is admittedly a need for reform in Canada, but the focus should be on governance overall, not merely on the sideshow that is the Senate. There is something seriously wrong with a system capable of tracing the earnings of a part-time flag person working for a couple of weeks on a highway project a few miles north of Meziadin Junction, but incapable of verifying the accuracy of living expenses in the tens of thousands of dollars over several years claimed by people working down the hall from the Prime Minister’s Office. The constitution’s requirements for membership in the Senate are not complicated. The essential qualifications being that a person must be at least thirty years old with assets worth a least $4,000 more than total debt, and residing in the province he or she has been appointed to represent. I am older than thirty, I am reasonably sure that my assets exceed my debts by $4,000, and I know where I live. Why am I not a Senator?
If reforming the Senate is too challenging a task for the Hon. Tim Uppal, Minister of State (Democratic Reform), at least our federal government could consider changes to the system of living allowances paid to Senators. As a first step the federal government should take care to apply linguistic consistency in its comments on Senators’ expenses. These payments are not expenditures of public funds; they are expenditures of “taxpayers’ money” as are all government expenditures. Once the federal government understands that reality, I have a suggestion on how it can reduce the cost of Senate living allowances while at the same time assisting those Senators who are confused about their residency.
The federal government should purchase a 105-unit apartment complex (one for each Senator) within walking distance of the Parliament Building. Bachelor suites with kitchenettes would be adequate. These units should be fully furnished, including bedding, pots, pans, and dishes. These units should be made available, free of charge, to every Senator whose personal residence is beyond easy commuting distance of Parliament Hill. Surplus units could be leased to the City of Ottawa’s social housing program.
Senators should be allowed to check into their units two days before the first sitting of a new session (allowing one day of rest to recover from the strains of travel). The property manager would be responsible to verify the identity of each Senator by cross-referencing the Senator’s health care card to the Senate registry to confirm each Senator’s residence before handing over the key to the Senator’s assigned bachelor suite. In my view this would be a win-win solution. It would relieve overworked parliamentary officers from the evidently impossible task of administering the Senators’ housing allowance claims, and it would relieve Senators of their difficult constitutional obligation to know the name of the province where they reside.
The federal government should welcome my suggestion. My Senate Housing Program will align a controversial and difficult to administer federal expenditure program with its ambitious desire to save taxpayers’ dollars. As to those of us who are not members of the Senate, we need not despair. We still have taxes and the weather to complain (and do nothing) about.
Andre Carrel is a retired City Administrator, journalist, author, and full-time grandpal.