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Op-Ed: A 7-Point Plan to Improve the Senate (The Globe and Mail)

Posted September 4th, 2013 in blog, Op-Ed and tagged , , , , by Doug Black

Canadians prefer reforming the Senate to abolishing it – 48.7%  versus 40.9% – and almost no one wants to leave it as is. Indeed, Quebec is the only province in which a majority favours abolition, which means that support for reform in almost every province is even stronger than the national average would suggest. I think this demonstrates that most Canadians recognize that the Senate can play a valuable role in balancing power in our diverse federation. To get the ball rolling, I am bringing forward a 7-point action plan to improve the Senate’s relationship with Canadians. My op-ed in the Globe and Mail today follows and further details of the plan can be found below.


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Doug Black

September 4, 2013

Since taking my seat in the Senate this past February, I have identified a number of simple and practical steps that the Senate could take to improve its relationship with Canadians. When we begin a new session this fall, I plan to bring to the table my 7-point action plan to get the ball rolling.

To ensure greater accountability, the Senate should:

1) tighten proof of residency requirements, because provincial and territorial representation is one of the core functions of Senators

2) add external members to its audit committee, as is done in the UK’s House of Lords

3) support legislation that would prevent MPs and Senators convicted of serious crimes from receiving their parliamentary pensions

To increase transparency and public trust, the Senate should:

4) clearly define “Senate Business” in its expense policies, so that rules are stringent enough to protect the interests of Canadian taxpayers, but not so restrictive that they handcuff Senators to Ottawa and prevent them from getting out and listening to Canadians

5) require more detailed online disclosure of Senators’ travel and hospitality expenses

6) webcast live video of debate in the Senate Chamber, as is done in Australia, the United States, the UK and countless other upper chambers around the world

Finally, to improve its engagement with the public, the Senate should:

7) launch a two-way dialogue with Canadians to improve understanding of its current role in Canada’s democracy and explore what role Canadians want it to play in the future

This plan is not meant to be comprehensive, but I hope that it will start to move the Senate in the right direction. Canadians expect and deserve a Senate that is accountable, transparent and responsive.

Albertans tell me that they are frustrated with the current state of affairs in the Senate, and some see abolition as the only solution. I share their frustrations.

And yet, digging deeper, I find that very few want a system of government in which a House of Commons dominated by Ontario and Quebec is the only body that determines Canada’s laws. We are an uncommonly diverse nation and we deserve a more balanced distribution of power than that.

The decision to include the Senate in Canada’s Parliament was not an accident of history. It was the product of reflection and choice by the Fathers of Confederation, who understood that an upper chamber could foster national unity by equally representing regional interests. Since then we have embraced cooperation and compromise in Canada’s governance and, as a result, our country will soon celebrate its 150th birthday as one of the most free and prosperous societies in the world.

This 7-point action plan to improve the Senate’s relationship with Canadians is a starting point, not a substitute, for the fundamental reforms needed to transform the Senate into a truly legitimate, effective and modern institution.

It is my hope that implementing this plan will help align the Senate’s practices with the public’s expectations and thus help to advance the conversation around more meaningful reforms. That conversation must be a serious one about the future of Canada’s democracy, free from unnecessary distractions. How Canadians govern themselves is much more important than the current problems dominating the headlines.

Doug Black is an Alberta elected Senator. You can find him on Twitter at @DougBlackAB.

Please click here to read the article on the Globe & Mail’s website.

 


Further details on my 7-point plan:

Part One: Accountability

  • Provincial and territorial representation is one of the core functions of Senators. All Senators should provide the following proof that they reside in the province or territory that they represent:
    • driver’s license
    • income tax return
    • health care card
    • a signed letter confirming that they vote in the province
  • To restore public trust and ensure the legitimate use of taxpayer dollars, external members should be added to the Audit Subcommittee of the Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration, as is done in the UK’s House of Lords. These external members would have deep experience and sterling reputations in the corporate administration/audit community and would provide independent and objective contributions to the Subcommittee’s work, including the development and approval of audit plans.
  • Parliament should support legislation that would prevent MPs and Senators convicted of serious crimes from receiving their parliamentary pensions. New Brunswick MP John Williamson introduced such legislation in the House of Commons earlier this year.

Part Two: Transparency

  • The Senate should provide Canadians with clarity as to what are and what are not eligible expenses. As I said last month, the rules must be stringent enough to protect the interests of Canadian taxpayers, but not so restrictive that they handcuff Senators to Ottawa and prevent them from getting out and listening to Canadians.
  • The Senate should disclose online the travel and hospitality expenses of Senators on a more detailed basis, albeit in a way that protects privacy where appropriate and minimizes administrative burden. Canadians must also take into consideration that a Senator from Montreal will necessarily have lower travel costs than one from Nunavut. I have been concerned by media reports making unfair comparisons of Senators’ travel expenses without acknowledging the obvious effect of distance from Ottawa. I am happy to tell Albertans that I currently post all of my travel, hospitality and office expenses here on my website.
  • The Senate should improve the accessibility and transparency of its legislative function by webcasting live video of debate in the Chamber,  as is done in Australia, the United States, the UK and countless other upper chambers around the world. Senate debates are open to the public. There is no reason why those in Ottawa should have the ability to watch the Senate in action while those back home in Alberta cannot.

Part Three: Public Engagement

  • The Senate should initiate a two-way dialogue with Canadians to help improve public understanding of the Chamber’s role in Parliament. As we think about the future of the Senate, it is important to understand its role as envisioned at Confederation and its contemporary function. We must also understand what role Canadians want it to play in the future.

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