Former senator Len Marchand, who spent 14 years in the upper house, doesn’t like what he sees playing out in Ottawa.
“I’m just sick,” he said on Thursday. “I’m really sad about the whole thing.”
Specifically, he feels badly for the Senate as an institution as well as for Senator Mike Duffy, who he came to know over the years as a senior journalist on the hill.
From his own experience, he can’t figure out how senators could have gone so far afoul of expense rules.
“Everything was clear, and as Liberals we worked very well with the Conservatives. We were there to serve the people and during my time, no one on either side of the house broke any rules.”
An MP and minister in the era of Pierre Trudeau, he has thoughts about how the Senate can be reformed or abolished in the long run. In the short term, he doesn’t think Prime Minister Stephen Harper can separate himself from a widening scandal.
“There is no way he can wriggle his way out of this one. In my view, he’s entangled so deeply.”
The continuing Senate debate on whether to suspend senators for expense violations has opened deep divisions within the Conservative party. However, the Tory caucus rallied behind Harper after he defended himself against opposition attacks.
Marchand doesn’t see an early departure in the making.
“I would doubt it. I think Harper will try to keep going as long as he can and try to clean things up.” He predicts the prime minister won’t seek re-election in 2015, though.
As for the future of the Senate, a referendum would lay the matter to rest, Marchand said. Representation is lopsided in favour of the East even with recent adjustments. He’d like to see changes, but if the people vote otherwise, so be it.
“If the people say abolish it, we should listen to the people. My motto is politics is people.”
Senator Nancy Greene-Raine suggested the scrutiny brought on by the controversy may bring about a greater awareness of how the Senate works and its importance to confederation.
“People are looking at the Senate and a lot of people are disgusted about the misuse of Senate resources. They’re saying abolish it. I would challenge those people to look at the Constitution, to look at the status it’s had for the last 150 years and how to change it. What the Fathers of Confederation put in place, it was really to create a different setting than the House of Commons.”
The Senate’s key role of sober second thought is based in part on senators not having to run for re-election every four years, giving them a longer-term view, she said. It’s also there to shore up representation of far-flung regions.
Major Senate reform would require constitutional changes difficult to win the required consent of the provinces, but minor reforms — public input into appointments and term limits, specifically — are within grasp, she said. B.C. passed enabling legislation earlier this year for nominating its own senators, though the issue is not high on the provincial agenda, she acknowledged.
“I would like to be part of a sitting committee to see how we can do it in B.C.,” she said.
B.C.’s approach could be different from that of Alberta, which has elected senators over the past 20 years. Greene-Raine suggested B.C. might want to strike a balance in representing the regions of the province. Currently, there is no representation of B.C.’s most densely populated regions, the Coast and Vancouver Island.
“The people of the region should have a say in the list that the prime minister is considering,” she said.
Opposition parties are divided on the Senate’s future. The NDP wants it abolished but the Liberals want to explore avenues of reform.