A Nation Still Waits for Senate to “Vanish”

In the Throne Speech for this current session of parliament, Prime Minister Harper’s government pledged: the senate will “either be reformed or, as with its provincial counterparts, vanish” – a poetic way to say be abolished.

Before making this commitment, the government had been advised that “unanimity” was required for a constitutional amendment to abolish the senate – authorization by 12 legislatures, Parliament’s lower and upper houses, and each of the ten provincial assemblies. Since then, the Supreme Court has confirmed this.

It is incontrovertibly clear that “reform” of Canada’s most unchanged and unchangeable institution is impossible. To fulfill its promise, therefore, the government need simply introduce a motion to authorize removing the words “an Upper House styled the Senate” from section 17, and repeal of sections 21 through 36, of the Constitution of Canada.

This is not about “opening up” the constitution, but closing sections of it down.

There is nothing to negotiate, least of all with provinces that decades ago set this precedent by abolishing their own unnecessary upper houses.

When Parliament’s upper house supports Canada’s evolution by voting itself out of existence, present occupants will receive generous severance benefits and pension credits in their bank accounts, and much credit in our history books, too.

Once all 12 legislatures pass this resolution, the governor general will issue a royal proclamation that the senate no longer exists. That number is now 11, in fact, because Saskatchewan’s legislature has already voted for abolition.

This unfulfilled Throne Speech pledge came from a government that thrice campaigned for and received electoral mandates to resolve the national embarrassment of an upper house that is unaccountable, unelected, and unnecessary. All that is needed now is follow-through. As a national leader, the prime minister himself ought to move the historic motion. And to remind everyone that this act of nation building transcends partisan differences, the leader of the official opposition should be the one to second it.

With damaging fallout from criminal trials yet to take place and audit reports still to be tabled, it is hard to believe that any Conservative would want to head into an election campaign without delivering on this unfulfilled commitment. Conservatives keen to emphasize economic and financial wellbeing could even point to yearly savings of some $100,000,000 in direct costs by no longer perpetuating what the prime minister himself called “a relic of the nineteenth century.”

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Senators in the Air

Costly flights by three Conservative Senators in 2013, at a time the Senate expenses scandal had practices of Parliament’s upper house under investigation, seemed to go against standards of frugality Canadians want from public office holders. They also seemed politically very stupid, given the absolute certainty the ticket prices, high enough in one case to fly around the world rather than Calgary to Ottawa and back, would come under scrutiny.

CBC Television’s Susan Bonner reported on The National newscast last night, and again this morning on CBC Radio’s World Report, about these travel expense claims.

In the case of a Senator from Toronto, who has a free pass from VIA for railway travel, he not only flew instead, but flew executive class. Ottawa to Toronto is hardly a “long haul” flight, such as from Ottawa to Sochi’s Olympic Games, where we’d perhaps be more tolerant of the need for some creature comfort.

Early this morning I was interviewed about the implications of this story by ten of CBC Radio’s regional stations, from Gander in the east to Victoria in the west, Windsor in the south, Yellowknife and Whitehorse in the north, then Ottawa, Calgary, Sudbury, Kamloops, and much of the province on “Ontario Morning” from Toronto.
I clarified that, based on what Susan Bonner reported, no rules were broken in the Senators making this excessively costly airplane trips. That is part of the larger problem I describe in my book Our Scandalous Senate as a “culture of entitlement” that long ago settled over the Senate and those who occupy the place.

Each Senator has 64 travel points per year, and a point is used for each return flight. It’s intended to equalize travel use. If you’re a Senator from Windsor, Ontario or Whistler, B.C., the ticket cost – which is paid by the Senate Budget Office – might be $400 or $1,400 but either way just uses up one travel point. Last year the Senate changed some aspects of the travel point system, but did not break any new ground. It only copied some of the clarifications made by the House of Commons for MPs travel some years ago. And the Senate still has its wonky criteria for deciding, on the basis of “health and well-being” how some of the travel points can be used.

Susan Bonner’s report might have looked at how many of their travel points these Senators used, but instead looked at the practice of some Senators privileging themselves on the public dime. That’s what Canadians, who pay these costs, want to see. The travel costs, though, are just a small slice of the $100 million the Senate costs us each year.
The CBC bills Susan’s report as an “investigation” but it is really just a report – these Senators already posted all their costs on-line, voluntarily, in a salute to transparency and accountability, so it only required picking out the biggest abusers and putting a television camera on them to record their excuses. A real investigation needs to go deeper – something I do for example in my book Our Scandalous Senate coming out this spring – to expose how overall financial administration is systemically far more scandalous.

Even a report by Susan Bonner that would shed more light is why the Liberal Senators have not posted their expenses on-line – despite Justin Trudeau’s commitment months ago that they would. Now that he’s disowned them all, they are probably even less inclined in their hurt and humilation to report expenses, as he’d ordered them, to the public.

The political fallout from this latest CBC report won’t likely change much about how a growing number of Canadians rightly feel about the Senate. It won’t lead to changes in the rules because the Senators don’t want to change and they write their own rule book. But the CBC story does serve to keep the national scandal of the Senate itself where it needs to be – prominent on our political agenda. More fallout will come with Susan Bonner’s follow-up report on the Liberal Senators’ air travel, although we can expect similar results – at least in terms of high costs – because once they are Senators Liberals and Conservatives tend to act alike, as members of the same exclusive club.

On all these costs, the two next big stories will come from the full-scale investigations now underway, by Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguson who is now conducting a special audit of expenses incurred by every one of Canada’s 105 Senators – as Susan mentioned to Peter Mansbridge last night – but also by the RCMP, who have already laid charges against former Liberal Senator Mac Harb and suspended Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, not for air travel but housing allowance claims in their cases. The common feature across them all – air travel, housing claims, meals and the rest – are loose rules and lax financial administration at the Senate, out of date and out of harmony with what Canadians have a right to expect of public office holders.

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BMO trashes neighbourhoods, police, self

Bank of Montreal posts guards at the entrance to its branches on a two-week rotation. From Vancouver’s Chinatown to Toronto’s Lakeshore, the appearance of a uniformed guard on the sidewalk beside the front door sends a signal that

> the neighbourhood is unsafe
> the police are unable to serve or protect, and
> the place where its customers bank is not secure.   

When I asked the tellers why, I was cheerily told “To make you feel safe.” I told them it did not, that it made me feel angry at the Bank.   

When I asked an assistant manager why, I was told there’d been an alarm on the weekend that there had been movement on the bank roof. On the weekend, the bank was closed. A robber coming through the roof would not attempt such a gambit during daylight business hours, which is when the BMO rent-a-cop stands by the front door.   

When I asked the guard herself why she was there, she replied “I don’t know.” When I asked her what instructions had been given, she answered “Just to watch out for suspicious people.”   

A few moments later, a man carrying four rolled-up carpets walked past her, unchallenged, into the branch. A rolled up carpet is a clever way to carry a shotgun, as part of an organized hoist, while looking like a tradesman replacing the soiled runners with cleaned ones.   

I asked the carpet man, since he evidently had a service contract for many BMO branches, why he thought there was a guard outside.   

“It’s the neighbourhood,” he replied. “It’s rough here.”   

“Why do you say that?” I challenged. “I’ve lived here thirty years. There’s been no bank robbery. There’ve been no store robberies. This community has the lowest crime rate in the entire metropolitan area.”   

“I didn’t know that,” the clean carpet man replied. “I just figured it was a bad neighbourhood because of the guard.”   

So I’ve asked the Bank of Montreal to explain in writing why it pays for ineffective private security officers who stand around like extras on a film set, conveying the impression its branches are unsafe, the neighbourhood is crime-riddled, and the  police force of our city can’t be relied on to respond to the silent alarms any of its branches can use to call the professional security force should the need arise. 

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John A. MacNaughton set the standard of integrity and patriotism

John A. MacNaughtonToday’s funeral service in Toronto for John A. MacNaughton marks the end of a life that greatly enriched Canada and deeply inspired many people.

John rose above the moil to see the greater possibilities. Whenever he spoke in public, his audience enjoyed his humour, learned something new, and felt uplifted. Whenever John acted in private, others were supported, special needs were addressed, and his example of selfless love gave strength. For whatever task fell to him, John MacNaughton prepared thoroughly, thought deeply, then advanced resolutely.

John was born in the small Ontario town of Exeter on March 6, 1945, two days after I’d been born in the small Ontario town of Bracebridge. In the mid-1950s, our fathers were both elected to the Ontario legislature. By the time John and I met, we were both living on the same street in Toronto, and each of us was working in First Canadian Place. We shared an optimistic view of Canada, knew that our country would be what we as citizens sought to make it, and worked as hard as we could in the public life’s many roles.

John caught the spirit of Canada in our country’s jubilant centennial year, working as a host at the Ontario Pavillion in Montreal at Expo ’67. He went on to work three decades in the investment world, rising to be president and chief executive officer of Burns Fry from 1989 to 1994, then its successor firm, Nesbitt Burns until 1999. He then became founding president and CEO of the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, pioneering a new standard of principles for board governance, and continued this leadership until 2005. Then he served as chairman of the Business Development Bank of Canada. He also chaired the Investment Dealers Association of Canada.

Community service for John extended to many other areas, too. His roles included chairmanship of the Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation; vice-chairman of the University Health Network; chairman of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs; vice-chairman of the Canadian International Council; member of the Prime Minister’s Advisory Committee on the Public Service; and president of The Empire Club of Canada, our country’s longest-running speakers’ forum.

Once earned, John’s support was constant, his advice wise.

The outlook we shared could be called “optimistic realism.”

After living for 41 years with courage and grace in the shadow of cancer, John’s life is ended, but his good works and wise ways ripple out endlessly through his cherished family, his vast circle of friends and colleagues, and his beloved country Canada. To be a friend of John’s was a unique joy. For the rest of my own days, I shall remain inspired by John’s clear thinking and courageous living.

That inspiration is felt by many for whom John MacNaughton set the standard of integrity and patriotism.

From Vancouver, Gary Brookes writes: “For any of us who worked with him under his leadership at Burns Fry and later Nesbitt Burns, it was a dynamic and exciting time. I was grateful knowing that the advice he gave came with his sense of integrity and committment to both firm and community. John truly embodied the spirit of being a great Canadian.”

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Cross-Border Migration

The current effort in the United States to contend with cross-border migration from Mexico (and the estimated eleven million illegal immigrants now stateside) is a fascinating counterpoint to the flow of people, especially of French-Canadians, who earlier entered the U.S. from the north.

President Obama this week referred to the need to clarify the status “of those who harvest our crops, cook our meals, mind our children, and clean our houses” – describing the tasks Mexican “aliens” perform because native-born Americans won’t. I have toured Nogales and similar border areas, and spent time at the early morning roadside clusters of workers waiting, and hoping, to be hired for a day’s work.

But a century ago, many from Quebec went south seeking work in mills and forestry, on farms and in shops, for low wages. I have a friend whose mother was a Cree Indian and father a French-Canadian gone to the U.S. looking for work; they met in a roadside diner in New Jersey, where she was a waitress working for tips and he was spending his last dollar for a meal. My friend, their daughter, arrived in due course at a senior level with the CIA.

Important figures in the American literary landscape likewise have such French-Canadian roots. Jack Kerouac, author of the landmark book On the Road, is one. Another is celebrated author Annie Proulx who, in her recent book Bird Cloud, writes movingly about her French-Canadian ancestry and how she felt instinctively at home in Montreal, even though she’d grown up in the U.S.

A century from now, when Spanish is the dominant language in the U.S., today’s nannies and cooks, farm workers and cleaners, questing desperately for a better life in a country known to celebrate freedom and provide opportuntiy for those wanting to get ahead, will be appreciated in a different light.

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Trains and Ontario’s Government — GO and Ontario Northland

NDP leader Andrea Horwath calls on the McGuinty Liberal Government in Ontario to scrap its plans to sell off the Ontario Northland Railway as one of the conditions for her party’s support of Finance Minister Dwight Duncan’s 2012 budget. Good.

The announcement that Ontario Northland is to be sold off has been confusing. Employees of the ONR are in the dark as much as the general public. No date was given for when rail service will end; some statements refer to “privatization” suggesting someone other than the government might buy the assets and operate the system, yet elsewhere it is stated the passenger rail service from Toronto to Cochrane is simply being terminated. Not good.

So what’s the situation? Checking into the plans with Elise Bélanger, we found the Polar Bear Express passenger rail service from Cochrane to Moosonee will continue to operate. This is essential for the communities along the line, including a number of flagstops, that depend on the train as the only means of transport.

From Cochrane south, passenger train service is to be replaced by bus service. The government might have more intelligently announced that the transition it had already been making, with a combination of trains and buses, would now be carried to the next step. People would have grasped the picture better. Already ONR operates a busy schedule of buses daily between the north and Toronto, and has reduced train service to one a day. In other words, it set up the passenger train operation to fail.

The ONR is not the only combo of trains and buses operated by the provincial government. The GO Train (“GO” cleverly standing for both Government of Ontario and movement) started as a commuter rail service, and later had buses added. The rail line now connects north from Toronto to Barrie, east to Oshawa and west to Burlington, with buses filling in various routes to make an integrated system.

The Ontario government thus has two rail/bus systems operating in the province, GO transit and the Ontario Northland. The efficiency of the former needs to be extended to the latter, rather than letting the ONR continue to decline due to weak resolve to make it a success. Otherwise, Ontarians will rightly see this as yet another example of northerners getting the short end of the stick.

One example of how the ONR has been set up to fail is the minimal level of train service. When the opportunity to travel on the train is so limited, people will indeed look to other options.

Another example is the failure to invest in trains (buying used and ill-suited equipment from other countries, taking the discards from GO Train service in the south) and for a number of years not maintaining the tracks so that trains were slowed, arriving hours late.

Still another example is the way the Northlander trains and buses interconnect. A passenger can use their ticket on either one, since train and bus tickets are interchangeable — for example, from Toronto to Huntsville. But buses do not use the train stations along the ONR’s route; they go to the same terminals used by other bus lines. Again to use the Huntsville example, there is no waiting room, and no one on duty except in daytime.

It is good that Ontario’s NDP are pushing to keep the ONR rail service operating — but it will need to be upgraded in the same way the GO Transit system is continually enhanced. It will need to be reorganized with a stronger emphasis on the needs of the travelling public. And it would seem the time has come for the Ontario Government to put its two rail operations under a single organziation, with GO and Ontario Northland as part of a cohesive, integrated provincial transportation program.

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Fitting Words

William Shakespeare’s reminded us to “Fit the action to the word, the word to the action.”

After the municipal election in Toronto, the Equal Voice organization dispatched an email headlined “Women Break Critical Mass in Toronto Election” and told of a high number of women elected to council. It’s a triumphant stage in local government, to be sure. But “breaking” critical mass? This term, from physics, has meaning if one “reaches” or “achieves” critical mass, but if it should be broken, well, that’s really a pity.

Billboards around Ontario ask “Do You Know Who Made Your Eggs This Morning?” Accompanying the question is a large photograph, on one billboard of a farmer in eastern Ontario, on another of a farm couple from some other rural part of the province. The egg marketing organization, in trying to promote consumption of eggs, obviously decided to humanize the message.

Yet the thought that this man, kindly and smiling though he is, “made my eggs this morning” not only gives short shrift to the hen who created them, yet another example of an executive taking credit for the unacknowledged industry of his workers, but leaves an incongruous image I’d just as soon not associate with eating food.

Even if your mind does not work so literally as to picture this man emiting an egg from his body in the manner of a productive hen, what about the common usage in English of “making eggs” as meaning cooking them. “I’ll make the eggs while you cook the bacon.” This guy was not at my home making my eggs this morning, or any other morning I can recall, at least recently.

The term also has a figurative meaning, as in “He laid an egg!” — for when a person tried something that is a failure, which this costly advertising campaign strikes me as being, for no reason other than failing to remember the lesson Shakespeare taught.

However, studying roadside billboards at length (the newest diversion for Torontonians boasting North America’s worst traffic congestion since outranking Los Angeles in this department) does not always mean exposure to inept wordsmithing or inapt imagery. In fact, there are plenty of rewarding examples of the lanuague being used for good communication.

Remember when the boast of restaurateurs was to offer “home-cooked” meals, or food “just like Mom made it”? This week a billboard informed me of a new (to me) line of prepared food under the “Ristorante” brand name, presumably available in grocery stores. In a neat switch, the advertisement proclaimed these foodstuffs desirable “for that restaurant taste!” Good-bye comfort food, hello sophistication.

Isn’t it a treat to see artful use of language? Even in small ways like this Ristorante example, one can appreciate the skill of fitting words to an intended purpose, such as working a switch-up on a prized quality like the virtue and taste of home-cooked meals.

On the other hand, once the critical mass of eggs has been broken and an omlette made, it cannot be undone.

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