There has never been a better time to be a Canadian Senator.
The worst lies behind us. The best is yet to come.
This isn’t to say that we will forget the tribulations of the past years. We stand humbled before Canadians. We are keenly aware that their faith in us has diminished.
But with their eyes upon us we now have an opportunity to prove our worth — and prove it we shall.
In fact, we’ve already started.
We know, for instance, that Canadians are just as concerned with how Parliament operates as with what we do.
Lost in the piles of media coverage is the fact that the Senate has moved to address this very point.
Back in 2011 — five years ago — we tightened policies governing Senators’ expenses and primary residences. Nobody forced us to do this; we acted because we heard Canadians’ concerns and wanted to allay them.
We also made changes to the Senate travel policy and in 2014 we adopted a toughened Ethics and Conflict of Interest Code.
There’s more to come too. We know that Canadians expect robust controls and oversight over how Parliamentarians spend their money. We will exceed their expectations and we are taking the time to make sure we get it right — because we can’t afford not to.
I chair the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, which reviews and oversees travel and other expenses; this is something we’re grappling with right now.
If anyone is curious about what else we do, I invite them to go to our committee’s website. The transcript from our 7:30 a.m. March 24 meeting, for instance, is available for all to read; the site is updated as soon as we can produce official and bilingual transcripts.
One of the things we did that day is scrutinize committee travel budgets. Travel can be crucial in our committees’ efforts to gather information that is used to provide a firm foundation for policy and legislation.
Our committee, however, is not a rubber stamp. Some committees satisfied our stringent requirements and got what they asked for. Some did not.
It’s worth noting just how easy it is for any member of the public to access this information. Then compare our committee with our House of Commons equivalent.
Meetings of the House’s Board of Internal Economy are still held behind closed doors. They release only minutes instead of full transcripts and the latest publicly-available minutes are from last year.
Is this the transparency and accountability we should strive to emulate?
There are many people eager to diagnose and peddle cures for what they see as an ailing institution.
Some, for instance, would have us believe that the Senate will never move forward without having more independent Senators.
What rot! Political affiliation is no barrier to free thought. Senators, regardless of their political alignment, are duty-bound to take positions on their merits.
We are not bound to the decrees of political leaders. We think for ourselves.
Independent and partisan Senators alike have sworn oaths to act in the best interests of Canadians.
Membership in a political party, however, comes with supportive colleagues in both Houses of Parliament — which can make it easier to get things done.
In contrast to our friends in the Commons, we Senators have been content to work away from the glare of the public spotlight.
We realize that if we are to demonstrate our value — and ensure Canadians know that we are a healthy and vibrant institution — we must improve our communications.
We are doing that too.
Our new online magazine, SenCA+, let’s Canadians see how Senators are serving them. You can get to know the people behind the Senate, take in a well-designed graphics about a bill introduced in the Red Chamber or read a vivid account of our aboriginal peoples committee’s recent fact-finding expedition to the North.
We hope Canadians are paying close attention.
I still remember visiting the Senate on a class trip when I was in Grade 5. Since that day, I aspired to be a Senator, even when I had only the glimmer of an idea of what Senators could accomplish.
I am now even more convinced that the Red Chamber has a crucial role to play in shaping the future of our country — particularly if we Senators can seize this opportunity to show how we contribute to Canada.
If we can do this, I know in my heart that the Senate will resume its rightful place as an institution worthy of Canadians’ trust and pride.
Senator Leo Housakos served as Senate Speaker; he is the Chair of the Senate Committee on Internal Economy, Budgets and Administration and he represents the division of Wellington in Quebec.