Good senators make the Senate worthwhile

John Crosbie
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Second in a two-part series

It was my opinion and my experience when I was a minister dealing with senators and Senate committees, that they were far better prepared and more knowledgeable about policy matters than committees of the House of Commons ever were — at least when I appeared before them.

I’d say 80 to 90 per cent of senators are hard-working and do much good work on Senate committees, as opposed to House of Commons committees, where the proceedings involve mostly political rhetoric between opposing parties and whatever minister might be before them.

Consulting the Library of Parliament for the last several years, you can find Senate committees discussing and doing first-class reports on topics such as:

• The Metis identity in Canada.

• Conflict of interest for senators.

• Moving energy safely.

• Safety elements of the bulk transport of hydro carbon products In Canada.

• The lobster fishery: staying on course.

• Iran in focus: current issues for Canadian foreign policy.

• Report on the sexual exploitation of children in Canada — the need for national action.

• The Canada-U.S. price gap.

• A study on harassment in the RCMP.

• A study of the new Veterans Charter.

• The future of Canadian air travel: toll booth or spark plug?

I look forward to the advice of the Supreme Court of Canada on the matters put before it by the Harper administration this week. I look forward, as well, to seeing whether or not the advice the Department of Justice gave me as minister in 1984–86 remains the view of that department.

On Wednesday, two western provinces, Alberta and Saskatchewan, were backing the federal government’s assertion that the Senate can be reformed without provincial input, which is the subject of an ongoing Supreme Court hearing.

I believe our Supreme Court will confirm there can be no change in the constitutional powers of the Senate or the House of Commons or in our Constitution without the agreement of seven provinces, as was the view of the Quebec Court of Appeal in its recent advice to the Government of Quebec.

In observing current debates in the Senate, I’ve been pleased to see that not only is it capable of sober second thought, but of independent thinking and independent debate, with opinions and ideas worth listening to.

What senators have to avoid in future is what appears to have been the problem with the three senators recently suspended — Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mike Duffy; that is, they believed they were entitled to far more entitlements, by way of expenses and resources for themselves, than other senators.

It makes me think of Ambrose Bierce, an American journalist, who in 1906 — in discussing the United States Senate — stated that the Senate was “made up of a body of elderly gentlemen charged with duties and misdemeanors.”

Our Senate appears to operate in an effective and worthwhile manner without the independence in our system of government that the U.S. Senate has.

I believe our Senate has the same historic rights and authority given to such second legislative bodies as the House of Lords. I also believe that second chambers like our Senate have to govern their members’ behaviour as the House of Lords and other second chambers historically have done.

In other words, appointees to the Senate have to be wisely chosen, and leadership, example and direction need to come from the top — the Prime Minister’s Office.

John Crosbie welcomes your feedback

by email at

Organizations: House of Commons, Supreme Court of Canada, Library of Parliament Department of Justice House of Lords United States Senate U.S. Senate

Geographic location: Canada, Iran, U.S. Alberta Saskatchewan Quebec

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Recent comments

  • Don Lester
    November 17, 2013 - 11:34

    I concur with Mr. Crosbie's arguments that we must maintain the Senate, a body separate from the House of Commons. to be a neutral body in monitoring the governments actions.You will always find a bad apple in any barrel (in this case 3), You will never find a "perfect person" , the trick is to appoint an honest, hard working person who will take the job seriously. You should not throw out the "baby with the bath water". There are good, honest hard working Senator's and just to name two, Elizabeth Marshall and Fabian Manning . I know this for a fact in knowing these two people and their work ethics. The Senate CAN work but I thinkit does need reform. To abolish it would prove nothing except to lose control over government legislation, which must have Senate approval before passage. Also there is a tremendous amount of committee work carried out by this group which greatly assists government in it's national and international decisions. Yes, tighten up on expense spending , travel and other costs associate with the Senate but to just throw it out would prove nothing and cause a greater problem.

  • Peedeecee
    November 16, 2013 - 19:46

    I agree with Mr. Crosbie's recommendations for keeping and improving the Senate, with one exception: please, no more Senate appointments made by a Prime Minister, which are too frequently political. A panel of public- and community-minded Canadians, under the auspices of the Governor-General, might suffice to choose wisely.