Scott Tannas was a little nervous when he assumed his seat in the Senate last spring.
One of three elected senators from Alberta, the president and CEO of Western Financial Group campaigned on a platform of Senate reform.
“I’d said the Senate was kind of useless and if we can’t reform it, we should get rid of it,” he recalled on a swing through Kamloops on Wednesday.
There he was, the new guy from High River, Alta., threatening to scrap the institution he was supposed to serve, yet these are not halcyon days for the upper chamber.
Far from it, when Canadians think of the red chamber nowadays, they see only red.
“When I took my seat in April, that was right at the height of the media circus and the morass around Senator Duffy in particular,” he said. “Certainly the place had a feeling of being under siege.
“People are angry. They are angry and I don’t blame them,” he added after touring Alberta and B.C. on his own initiative and expense.
“What’s interesting is to see the prime minister say the Senate needs reform and that needs to be acknowledged. In its present form, it’s not defendable.
“I think, in some ways, what’s gone on with the expense scandal, it helps the cause of Senate reform. It’s certainly galvanized people’s opinions.”
Despite political appointments and expense scandals, the house is a pool of exceptional talent that has a valuable role, he said. He thinks it needs to be able to realize its potential.
“We’ve got a lot of big problems in our country. If you need to get elected every two to four years, there are a lot of longstanding, difficult issues, and you need to work on those for many, many years to solve them,” he said, citing the struggles of Aboriginal peoples.
“Nobody believes we’re on the right track in Canada in terms of our relations with Aboriginal people. We’ve got to get there because we’re already in collision with them.”
The Harper government has put the issue to the Supreme Court of Canada to rule whether reform is possible without constitutional amendment and its requirement of provincial consent. Tannas believes this can achieve an elected and equal Senate, with term limits, enabling its effectiveness.
While Supreme Court deliberations can drag out, Tannas said he expects a decision to come early in 2014. B.C. is among provinces that have made submissions to the Supreme Court of Canada on Senate.
“I wouldn’t hold my breath on it,” said Ray Pillar, a retired political scientist. “I’d be very surprised to see an elected Senate in our lifetime.”
Even when constitutional reforms had the consent of all provinces and territories, they still didn’t pass, he said.
Pillar thinks there is value in having unelected senators who can make tough decisions without having to worry about getting re-elected.
“The prime minister works very closely with the regions and senators are essentially picked by region. The people picking the senators are elected, so I don’t see a problem with it.”
Electing politicians is certainly no guarantee that they won’t get into trouble, he noted.
The NDP has long called for abolishment.
“It’s such a failed, discredited institution,” said former candidate Michael Crawford. “Abolishing the Senate opens up a broader discussion about electoral reform generally,” he added.
A review of the books of all senators is underway and Crawford predicts there will be more spectacular revelations to come. The mood, even among those not politically aligned, is clear, he said.
“I think this will be an election issue in 2015.”