By Dorothy Dobbie (photo by Johnathan Nightingale)
When Stephen Harper was elected, he had a single-minded determination to destroy the senate. He would reform it or abolish it. And if he couldn’t do that, then perhaps the next best thing would be to undermine it until it self-destructs. The Duffy trial reeks of this strategy.
However, in this country, the prime minister is not the boss of everything – even if he thinks he is.
There are protocols and rules, and precedence and courts that keep the power of the PMO in check – and that is as it should be. Distribution of power is the bedrock of our democracy.
Some of that power distribution is vested in the senate. Its members are appointed to act as the stewards of sober second thought, and that means not being under the thumb of the House of Commons or its elected leader.
If a bill is being proposed that is harmful to the country’s interests, the senate has been awarded powers to seek amendments or to send the bill back for further thought. And they have rescued us many times from ill-conceived legislation.
To make this all work, the senate must be, and is, independent. Senators are appointed by the governor general, albeit on the advice of the prime minister. Once appointed, senators are not constrained by the need to be re-elected, as are the members of the House of Commons. Instead, senators are charged with the responsibility to use their judgment in our best interests.
To allow the senate to do its work, the government appropriates certain funds for the Upper House to use at its discretion. The senate then makes the rules under which the money is distributed and spent.
So it is difficult to understand how the RCMP is justified in accusing and charging Senator Duffy with 31 counts of fraud and bribery over the use of the funds that were appropriated for his office. Furthermore, the RCMP may be overstepping its authority constitutionally, since the RCMP reports to parliament, which includes the senate.
Why do these fine points matter?
The answer is it is vitally important to preserve the integrity of the Upper House; it must retain its independence in order for all of the pieces of Canada’s democracy to fit together synchronously.
The RCMP is accountable to parliament rather than to government, and this is a very important distinction that most Canadians do not understand. Members of Parliament, even though they belong to the governing party, are not members of government, unless they are members of cabinet.
Governments (the administrative or executive branch which includes the prime minister and his cabinet) are responsible to parliament, which includes the senate. Parliament – as the voice of the people – is the final authority in our model of democracy.
If the majority of parliament loses confidence in the government, it can be forced to step down and be tested in an election – the voice of the people through their elected members of parliament being the final arbiter in our system.
The senate is part of parliament, and how the senators spend the money allotted to them is no business of the RCMP. The government may take issue with the senate’s management of those funds, and if so, can discuss the matter with the senate.
The House of Commons may elect to withhold funding from the senate as a method of persuasion to force change. But due process is what parliament is all about, and in this case, using the RCMP to harass a senator is not the right process.