The Senate has taken a tremendous blow to its reputation and credibility this past session, with the residence and expense controversy that has, at the same time, engulfed the Prime Minister's Office.
In some senses, everyone loses from this controversy. Harm to the Senate's stature washes over and diminishes all of our Parliamentary institutions. Government can and does play many positive roles in our lives. After all, the private sector did not build this nation on its own. If Parliament is damaged then government is too, and it loses the credibility it needs to be able to lead us all to do things that need doing, but that we may not particularly want to do.
So, restoring the Senate's stature is important for the Senate, but also has implications beyond the Senate. This raises the question of how to do it.
The Senate has already taken two constructive steps in reaction to these events, including calling in the Auditor General and establishing an internal audit committee. These steps will accomplish two things:
1. The announcement sends a message of responsible action by, and better management of, the Senate. It might also incline people towards a better impression of the Senate; and
2. This might also reduce the likelihood and frequency of infractions of the rules.
However, these steps are insufficient in two ways:
1. They are reactive and do not constitute an on-going proactive, positive message. If Canadians have not already forgotten them (if they even know we took these steps), they soon will. The announcement of the Auditor General and the audit committee constitutes only a single-time, single-shot message of responsible action. This message would need to be sent every day, day after day, if it were to penetrate the consciousness of Canadians.
2. No amount of rules supervision will stop all infractions, and anyone who is doing that on purpose will certainly work pretty hard to hide the truth from even the auditors. If someone can break a rule as obvious as "where do you live," or simply claims expenses for being somewhere when they have been somewhere else, or perhaps someone simply made a mistake; there is no guarantee that there will not be future infractions which would be very embarrassing to the Senate as a whole. The Senate needs credibility and resilience, so that Canadians can look beyond any setbacks and have a sustained trust and understanding of the Senate's worth.
So, we need to do more and do it proactively. We need to send continuous, compelling evidence of credible and responsible Senate work on behalf of Canadians, on issues that matter to them.
The really good news is that the Senate actually has a very compelling and persuasive story to tell:
1. Senators do a whole lot of really good work that most Canadians know nothing about.
2. The Senate also generally conducts itself with dignity, depth and substance, both in committees and in the Senate Chamber. These things sometimes (maybe often) seem to be lost in the House of Commons.
The trick is getting that message out. There are any number of ways to do that. In addition to our televised committee proceedings, one of the most effective would be televising or podcasting the proceedings of the Senate Chamber. The advantages of this would include:
1. It would give Canadians a chance to see elevated and tempered debate in the Senate as many as 120 days per year.
2. This access would be leveraged further by television and radio which would use clips, and even print media outlets, which would have better, or at least more convenient and interesting access. The message would get out further.
3. It would fulfill Canadians' democratic right of access to their Parliamentary institutions. It would be absolutely unimaginable that Senators would ever close the physical doors to the Senate Galleries and ban the public. Digital communications are today's door, and without podcasting we are essentially shutting the 21st century door to the Senate.
And how can 105 people say legitimately to 34 million Canadians that they do not have the right to access that digital door? Would we ever say that they cannot have Hansard? Are we actually saying that it is OK to have certain kinds of access, but only if they are the kinds that hardly anyone ever uses?
4. It is not expensive.
There are other measures we need to take including a more rigorous and professional communications strategy. But podcasting should be a priority.
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