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Getting rid of the Canadian Senate zombie

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Photo: Vlad Litvinov/Flickr

The world is full of surprises.

Everyone who ever knew Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin knew two things about them. They were inordinately proud of their roots back in PEI and Saskatchewan and were determined never to lose contact with them. Wadena and Charlottetown was in their souls. But, there was a very big "but."

They were never going to live there. It's not a comparison that's often made, but for them Wadena and Charlottetown were just like New York City -- wonderful places to visit, but for those with restless ambition, not somewhere you would actually live. For them, making it could only mean central Canada, not the distant provinces.

They wanted desperately to be journalists, political journalists, to be precise. They were political junkies, helplessly addicted. And the only serious place to feed that addiction was Ottawa. It's why Ottawa was always their real home, where you could smell the pungent scent of power, where you could wallow in the glitz and glitter and glamour of that great metropolis. How ya gonna keep 'em down in Wadena and Charlottetown after they've seen Bytown?

Maybe we were all myopic, or was it just me? As journalists at the top of their professions, they always seemed appropriately detached -- fascinated with the process, unaffiliated on the substance. Who knew what was bubbling beneath the surface neutrality? Who knew how easy was the transition from impartial star journalist to full-blown, run-of-the-mill right-wing political loyalist? Who knew they were prepared to ask "How high?" when He Who Appointed Them ordered them to jump?

Who knew that when well-known Canadians in 2011 begged old acquaintances now turned Conservative Senators to back a bill for cheap generic AIDS drugs for Africa, the senators would follow party orders instead? The bill had passed the House in the face of opposition by Stephen Harper's minority government. Even many Conservative MPs supported it. Yet the Conservative majority in the Senate made sure it failed.

Here were grown women and men elected by no one, accountable to no one, wildly privileged, with handsome taxpayer-provided incomes and apparently infinite travel allowances, often with cushy seats on corporate boards, many still with entirely separate lucrative careers they had never surrendered.

And there they were deliberately thwarting the wishes of the democratically elected representatives of a majority of Canadians on a crucial humanitarian issue. Some wondered how they could look themselves in the mirror ever again. But those who accept appointment to the Chamber of Taskless Thanks are not easily given to shame.

After all, hadn't the same dependable gang already played the same unethical, anti-democratic card only a year before when they buried, without debate, a climate change bill that had similarly been passed by the House? Before that moment, the Senate had not killed a bill without a debate in 70 years. Maybe the poor dears were just too pooped to participate. Travel is so exhausting, doncha know.

But then, this has always been the Senate's role, as the late Christina McCall taught us in her brilliant book Grits. For decades the major responsibility of Hon. Senators was to be bagmen for the party that appointed them (hello Senators Zimmer and Gerstein) or its campaign director (take a bow, Senators Smith and Finley), and to defend corporate interests against mob rule, a.k.a. the House of Commons.

Little has changed. It's true there've always been a few of the Chosen who slipped in some good work while no one was looking. But when it comes to protecting Big Pharma from the depredations of generic drug companies, the PM knows perfectly well whom he can count on.

That's why, on 55 occasions, Prime Minister Harper has broken Opposition Leader Harper's sacred oath never ever to appoint an unelected senator, regretting it only with Patrick Brazeau, who presumably seemed a good idea at the time.

Now that the Senate is enduring one of its periodical chintzy scandals -- when else do we hear about it? -- many sage words will be expended on its future. Justin Trudeau believes the Senate needs nothing more than distinguished appointees -- further proof of his rigorous intellectual cogitations. Mr. Harper may still want Senators to be elected at the provincial level, since what Canada urgently needs is more elections to grow the promising robocall industry. Maybe the Supremes will tell us that this Canadian zombie -- it's been dead for years yet still functions in a surreal way -- can simply be buried.

Yet we must not act in foolish haste. We must not tempestuously throw the baby out with the bathwater. Serious questions must be asked. Can Canada's airline industry survive if Canada's Senate vanishes?

This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.

Photo: Vlad Litvinov/Flickr

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