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Flawed Senate better than no Senate at all

September 18, 2013 - Victoria Times Colonist

By David Bly

It's easy to hate the Senate if you never talk to any senators. After all, it's a red-velvet place full of political hacks and has-beens who do nothing but burn up taxpayers' money on second homes, useless junkets and expensive political dinners.

It's that kind of glib leap to judgment that hampers the efforts of senators who truly believe they can make a difference and who work hard for their country.

Being a Canadian senator can be a little tough these days, admits Colin Kenny, who was in Victoria this week to talk about the country's lack of defence capability, particularly in Pacific waters.

During his visit, he met with the Times Colonist's editorial board to discuss a wide range of subjects - easy to do because his interests are wideranging.

His causes too often have to take a back seat. Four senators have been investigated for questionable expenses, but all senators get tarred with the same brush. He says he had had a few unpleasant encounters as a result, but he's more concerned about how Senate employees are treated.

Yet it was the Senate that raised the issue, he said. Senate staff pointed out potential problems to the Senate's internal economy committee, which called for the audits that brought the scandals to light.

Kenny has also been critical of the Senate for not reprimanding those of its members who have behaved badly.

"Wrong is wrong, and without formal censure, the Senate becomes part of the wrong, and with the public watching, falls far short of the right," he wrote in the Ottawa Citizen in May.

The fallout from the attention focused on Senate expenses has been a move by Parliament to restrict Senate travel, and that is a mistake, says Kenny. Senators need to be able to get out among the people to see what is happening.

"The farther you get away from the Parliament Building, the closer to the truth you get," he said.

He told of hearing a report in the Senate about how rosy things were for Canada's military, but a short time later during a visit to Canadian Forces Base Trenton, noticed a row of Hercules aircraft on the tarmac. He asked a sergeant about the planes, and was told the planes were unserviceable. The military's Hercules fleet totalled 32, yet 19 of them could not fly. The parked planes were being cannibalized for parts to keep the rest of the fleet going, he learned.

"Yet we had just got a briefing saying everything was OK," he said.

Perhaps it is easy for a senator to sit back and take it easy until retirement at 75, but Kenny isn't one of those. He has crossed the country campaigning to reduce the use of tobacco among Canadian youth. He is concerned about the erosion of Canada's defence capabilities. He has advocated for greener fuels.

Although Kenny is from Ottawa, he sees the whole country as his constituency. But even in all his travels, he never uses up the 64 travel points he's allotted each year. In 2012-13, he used 19.5 travel points - his travel expenses for the year came to less than what it costs for a cabinet minister to make one flight across the country in a Challenger jet.

The flaws of Canada's Senate are huge. The prime minister can stack the Senate with loyal lapdogs; Senate representation is horribly unequal regionally; senators cannot be tossed out for non-performance. And some senators are less visible than others. Quick, how many senators does B.C. have and what are their names? (B.C. is allowed six, but currently there are five: Larry Campbell, Nancy Greene-Raine, Mobina Jaffer, Yonah Martin and Richard Neufeld.) Kenny shows what committed senators can do - and what many of them are doing. They can investigate and advocate fearlessly without fear of losing the next election. They can pursue causes that matter, not just ones that make political points. They can truly be those who engage in sober second thought.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the Senate has to change or be abolished, but he hasn't been shy about using it for his political purposes, and he keeps a short leash on his appointees.

As we become governed more by mandates from the Prime Minister's Office and less by a representative Parliament, we need more senators to call the prime minister to task and fewer to do his bidding.

Fix the Senate? Definitely. Abolish it? That would be our loss.