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Nice Work: The Continuing Scandal of Canada's Senate

Nice work .... if you can get it. The salary is more than $64,000. The expense allowances are generous. And the perks include everything from free snacks to first-class travel inside Canada. You don't really have to do anything to earn your salary except show up, at most, about three times a week when Parliament is in session. No one will mind if you miss a few days. The standard of attendance maintained by your colleagues is notoriously poor.
Claire Hoy has turned his irascible attention to Canada's Senate. It's not a pretty sight. The trial of Senator Eric Berntson that resulted in his conviction for fraud in February 1999, (a result that is being appealed), represents only the most recent in a long line of scandals the Canadian Senate has endured.
Nice Work
True, some senators perform work that is constructive and useful, most of it in committees that examine legislation put forward by the House of Commons. But even their defenders admit that these contributions don't add up to much and note that a declining minority of senators carries the load. Tory Senator Brenda Robertson, vice-chair of the Standing Orders Committee, admitted the party has problems getting senators to attend. "According to my math," she reported, "in about four years we will have about twenty-five active members in the Senate." Those are the good ones. The others collect their generous pay, perks, and allowances while they either slack off, actively pursue partisan political advantage for their respective parties, or build wealth for themselves and the corporations on whose boards of directors so many of them sit.
There are signs that the end may be approaching. The mammoth battles - of ego and partisan rancour - that marked the second term of the Mulroney government, when the Liberal leader in the Senate set out to sabotage the legislative program of the Tories, marked an undoubted low point in the history of the upper chamber. Whether the Senate can be reformed, however, and what shape reform should take, remain open questions.
Written by Claire Hoy. Published by McClelland & Stewart, 1999.
0-7710-4212-4 $32.50

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Last modified: March 20, 2000

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