The Talk of Ottawa: Get Rid of the Senate

CANADIANS are angry with their politicians. Since former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney resigned, the Senate has been next on the voters' hit list.

Critics say the Parliament's upper chamber is Canada's most exclusive club; 104 political loyalists appointed by the prime minister who do little to collect their $64,400 (Canadian; US$50,230) salary but show up to put their stamp on legislation sent to them by the House of Commons.

There's been talk lately of abolishing the Senate. Most pundits say this is not an imminent threat, but the senators seem to be taking the public anger seriously.

The most recent indication was on July 12 when embarrassed senators voted to rescind a C$6,000 increase in expense allowances they had given themselves just last month. Following a deluge of angry mail, attacks by colleagues in the House, and call-in talk shows portraying the senators as spendthrifts when millions are out of work, they voted 80-1 to abandon the raise.

Liberal Party Senate leader Royce Frith said that it was the first time he could recall the Senate reconvening to reverse itself.

No matter that it was not exactly a raise, as Senator Frith explained, or that members of the House of Commons had given themselves a similar increase in expense allowances in 1991. The senators already get a C$10,400 tax-free allowance and the increase was going to pay Ottawa living and hotel expenses.

The problem was the timing. Canada's economy is growing, but an unemployment rate of 11.4 percent and the national deficit and debt problems are still foremost in the minds of most Canadians.

"People are having a tough time in the private and public sectors, and the Senate seems to many like a resting home for old political hacks," says Graham White, a University of Toronto political scientist. "When people see everybody else tightening their belts, and the senators go and do this, it looks bad."

Professor White says the credibility of the upper house also was hurt when Prime Minister Mulroney filled a number of empty Senate seats with Progressive Conservative Party friends and colleagues just days before his resignation.

Frith describes the national mood as one in which many Canadians say they would just as soon see the Senate abolished.

Prime Minister Kim Campbell reacted to the higher allowance by calling it "inappropriate." But others were less charitable.

"It's time for Canadians to send the senators a message that they're not only out of touch, they're out of time," says New Democratic Party leader Audrey MacLaughlin. She wants a referendum question to abolish the Senate put on the fall ballot. The Globe and Mail, Canada's main daily newspaper, also called for a referendum on the issue.

But getting rid of the Senate would be difficult, analysts say. The Constitution would have to be amended, and few politicians dare touch it after last year's constitutional crisis and referendum in which Canadians rejected a package that included an elected Senate.

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