by David Korzinski | April 20, 2017 7:30 pm
April 19, 2017 – As the Canadian Senate considers invoking an obscure section of the constitution to permanently expel Senator Don Meredith for a sex scandal, a new poll from the Angus Reid Institute finds a majority of Canadians favour expanding the list of reasons for which Senators can be removed from office.
The Red Chamber has long been a lightning rod for debate about its efficacy, with the latest sparks flying over Meredith’s alleged abuse of power by entering a sexual relationship with a teenager and the dismissive comments of another Senator, Lynne Beyak, about the Indian Residential School system.
Overall, this poll finds Canadians feeling positively about the Trudeau government’s recent changes to the Senate appointment process, but most believe additional Senate reform is necessary.
Moreover, more than two-in-three say the issue of further reforming or abolishing the Senate is serious enough to merit re-opening Canada’s constitutional debate.
This year has marked a return to an all-too-familiar trend for Canadians: turmoil in the Senate, not related to fierce argument over legislation, but to acrimony over the words and actions of sitting members. The Senate Ethics Officer Lyse Ricard released a report in March finding Ontario Senator Don Meredith had broken two sections of the Senate ethics code. Meredith, a 52-year-old married pastor, began a relationship with a 16-year-old girl in 2013. The relationship continued until 2015 when it became public knowledge – he was subsequently removed from the Conservative Senate caucus, but remains a paid senator.
Meredith was investigated by Ottawa police, who cleared him of any legal wrong-doing, but his future in the Senate remains murky. Ricard noted in his report that Meredith has failed to uphold the “highest standards of dignity to the position of Senator” and that he had used his position improperly. The embattled Senator has taken a leave of absence but has refused calls from his colleagues to resign.
The Senate may very well suspend Meredith or withhold his pay – each of which can be accomplished by passing a motion to do so – but ousting a senator permanently remains a difficult task. There are five reasons noted in the constitution that are grounds for permanently expelling a Senator from the Red Chamber. It can be done of the Senator:
For their part, the majority of Canadians would like to see this list of reasons a senator can be fired expanded, as seen in the following graph:
Support for the Senate’s power to expel members for more reasons than the constitution allows today grows or shrinks based on the circumstances involved. For example, being involved in a highly-publicized scandal involving money or morality, even if not convicted of a crime, is seen to be cause for expulsion among two-thirds of Canadians. Both the Meredith case and recent spending controversies would fall under these criteria.
Furthermore, under the current rules, if a Senator is convicted of a crime other than treason or a felony, (shoplifting or assault, for example) they would not be subject to expulsion. Three-in-four Canadians (77%) would like to see that changed.
The fate of another beleaguered senator, who has also faced calls for resignation, would be different if left up to Canadians.
Senator Lynn Beyak outraged many in March when she addressed the Senate and suggested that the “good deeds” in the residential school system “go unacknowledged for the most part.” Considering that seven-in-ten Canadians agree with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s characterization of residential schools as “cultural genocide,” the outrage was not surprising.
Beyak has been removed from the Senate’s committee on Aboriginal Peoples, but only one-in-three Canadians would agree with her being expelled from the Senate completely, with Quebec and Atlantic Canada taking a slightly harder line:
Current events aside, the Senate has a long history of scandals. From more recent expense scandals involving Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy, to the 1998 revelation that Liberal Senator Andrew Thompson (the Siesta Senator) had been living in Mexico, only attending work in the Senate 47 times in 14 years, to the 1976 bribery case of Louis Giguere involving then-NHL-President Clarence Campbell, Canadians have long held concerns about the quality and accountability of their unelected representatives.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they’re paying attention to changes. Asked about recent alterations to the Senate appointment process, just one-in-four (26%) say they know anything about them:
That said, people tend to see these changes – that allow any property-owning Canadian to apply for appointment to the Senate – as a positive move (53% do). The highest support comes from past NDP voters, where two-in-three say the new process is an improvement. Past Conservative Party supporters are split, though slightly more say they too agree that the process is better:
However, just one-in-four (26%) say they believe the quality of Senators will improve under the new selection process, with younger Canadians most likely to express this:
What more Canadians do expect is an increase in the amount of diversity and representation. The Senate has been accused of operating as an echo-chamber for the party in power for years, and four-in-ten Canadians expect new procedures to lead to more independent thought from Canada’s underrepresented regions. This opinion hovers around a majority for both NDP and Liberal supporters:
Notably, two neighbours in the so-called “alienated” west, feel quite differently about the likelihood that the new process will lead to a more-representative Senate. B.C. is most confident, while Alberta is most skeptical:
Most appear to agree that changes introduced by the federal government will be a stepping stone to a more effective Senate. They also find common ground on the idea that more should be done.
Indeed, only 16 per cent of Canadians say that at this point, the best path is to leave the Senate as is. A slim majority seek further reform (53%), while significantly fewer would like to see the Red Chamber abolished outright than they did a few years ago. The number of Canadians holding this position has dropped 19 points since November 2013, when Wallin, Brazeau and Duffy were all suspended as a part of an investigation into improper expenditures by each.
Any significant changes to the Senate would require a constitutional amendment, requiring at minimum, the support of seven of the provincial legislatures, and the representation of 50 per cent of the population, the so-called “7+50 formula”.
Canada has not attempted to amend its constitution since the Charlottetown Accord – which included Senate reform among its proposed changes – was defeated a quarter-century ago.
Further, Senate abolition of the body would need “unanimous consent” – i.e., approval from all 10 provinces and from Parliament. Regardless most Canadians say Senate reform warrants opening up the constitution. As was the case last year, seven-in-ten Canadians say that they support this action:
The Angus Reid Institute (ARI) was founded in October 2014 by pollster and sociologist, Dr. Angus Reid. ARI is a national, not-for-profit, non-partisan public opinion research organization established to advance education by commissioning, conducting and disseminating to the public accessible and impartial statistical data, research and policy analysis on economics, political science, philanthropy, public administration, domestic and international affairs and other socio-economic issues of importance to Canada and its world.
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