“You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.”
— Germaine Greer
A Canadian Press story this week about the poorest attendance records in the Canadian Senate caused a firestorm, not because of the reportage, but because of the reaction to it.
The piece, by CP reporter Jennifer Ditchburn, put Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau, Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire and Conservative Janis Johnson at the top of the list.
Dallaire and Johnson had good reasons for missing several days in the Chamber — he was conducting research on child soldiers in Africa, while she was caring for a dying relative.
Brazeau? He said his reasons were personal, and called the reporter a bitch on Twitter.
Or, to quote him directly: “while u smile Jen, others suffer. Change the D to a B in your last name and we’re even!”
Curious about the attendance records of our own senators, I contacted the Senate and was told by a communications official that “Senators’ attendance records are only available in paper format and can be consulted in our offices during regular business hours.”
Appalled at the lack of access to information, I contacted our senators directly, and Elizabeth Marshall kindly steered me to the section of the Senate website where the information is, in fact, compiled online.
Our senators have good attendance records, and they probably play nicely with others, as well.
Not so Brazeau.
It’s true he could have a perfectly good reason for missing 25 per cent of Senate sessions from June 2011 to April 2012, and we all know that senators — some of whom treat their positions as cosy sinecures — are easy targets for criticism.
But let’s not judge Brazeau on his attendance record.
As Liberal Senator George Baker pointed out in an email to me, and rightly so:
“As far as attendance records are concerned, my attendance records are always nearly perfect, but that means nothing as to the job a senator is doing. To be sitting in the Chamber could be a sign of old age or laziness. If I were really doing the best job I could as a Senator or elected member of Parliament, I could have the worst attendance record in Parliament, and proud of it.”
Baker also pointed out that unlike MPs, senators are accountable for their attendance — hence the online documentation — and are penalized if they are absent too often.
For those of you who don’t know how the system works, Baker explains:
“The Senate has a rule that says that you can only miss 20 days in each (now four-year) Parliamentary session. If you miss over 20 days in the Parliamentary session you are fined the monetary sum equal to your pay for each day missed. This rule was brought in, as you may recall, when one senator was found to have a second home in Mexico, which he attended more than his home in Canada. … No such system of attendance and/or fines is in effect in the House of Commons. So, the only ‘published’ record of attendance and system of fines is available from the Senate and not the House of Commons. The Senate must also, by law, report the complete expenditures of each Senator — no such requirement exists for elected members.”
And so if Brazeau’s personal problems continue to keep him away from the Senate Chamber, he will literally be made to pay.
It’s a system that promotes accountability to the Senate.
But who’s going to keep Brazeau accountable to the Canadian people?
I’m starting to think that Twitter is the best thing that ever happened to Canadian politics, because it tends to attract politicians who don’t think before they tweet, and then, when they can’t resist sending out 140 characters of snark and venom, their air-brushed, carefully managed political personas go right out the window.
As Pakistani poet Muhammad Iqbal once noted, “People who have no hold over their process of thinking are likely to be ruined by liberty of thought.”
Don’t like a reporter’s story? Curse her out in public with a derogatory, sexist term. That’ll teach the media to call you on your poor attendance record.
So much for sober second thought.
George Baker is right. We shouldn’t judge senators on attendance.
We should, instead, judge them on their public performance.
And Senator Brazeau’s juvenile, unprofessional behaviour is a fine example of why some people would like to see the Senate abolished.
Jennifer Ditchburn may have accepted his apology — she has to work in the same political arena, after all.
But I don’t.
And there should be repercussions when politicians make a very public leap from the Chamber to the gutter. If unparliamentary language is unacceptable in the Chamber, why should it be acceptable from politicians on Twitter? Brazeau was using social media in his position as a senator, on our dime.
Ditchburn was merely doing her job. Brazeau should grow up and do his.
Pam Frampton is a columnist and The Telegram’s associate managing editor.
She can be reached by email at