Mamidosewin (meeting place, walking together)

Senate improves its rules and leads on social policy

Senate improves its rules and leads on social policy

Senate improves its rules and leads on social policy

Published on 19 April 2016 Publications by Senator Jane Cordy

I was an elementary school teacher before I was appointed to the Senate.

I remember some of the excuses the students used to try out on us. Some of them showed exceptional creativity – but we all know talk is cheap. We are all judged by our actions.

So when I talk about the Senate and lessons we have learned, I know it will take more than a handful of speeches to restore Canadians’ faith in us.

At the same time I think it is important to emphasize we have already acted – and of our own accord – to ensure Senate spending is transparent.

Since 2010 we have been proactively disclosing our expenses and are going to introduce more oversight as recommended by the auditor general. Our travel policy has been reviewed to ensure there is clarity in the rules.

We have strengthened our ethics and conflict of interest code, which is enforced by the independent office of the Senate ethics officer. These measures – and these are just a few – should help to reassure Canadians we have indeed taken to heart the lessons of these past years.

It is also important to emphasize what we senators are contributing as parliamentarians. The Senate’s recent report on obesity is a good example.

After hearing from dozens of experts, the committee on social affairs, science and technology released a report brimming with policies for a healthier, wealthier Canada.

The report sparked a national conversation about the obesity crisis and what measures we should take to fight against it. We have challenged the government to act and have given them tools and information to do so promptly and wisely.

A few years ago, when I was on that committee, our report on mental health mapped out a strategy to channel national resources into improving mental health for Canadians.

Obesity and mental health problems cost Canada billions of dollars. Neither problem will go away on its own. As senators, we are best placed to keep calling attention to these life-affecting issues. Many senators personally champion causes that might not otherwise receive the attention they deserve.

An astute political science professor, Ned Franks, wrote an essay about the Senate. He said there are, in a sense, three Senates: the version that exists in the minds of the public; the hypothetical elected Senate; and the actual Senate, “composed of real people doing real things.”

He does not mince words when it comes to the Senate as imagined by the public – it seems we have a reputation for being less than exciting. But I believe collegiality and civility provide a better environment for doing our work well. Our work may lack the drama of Question Period in the Commons, but our role is to add reason and common sense to Parliament.

Which brings us to the hypothetical elected Senate. Do we want to duplicate the rowdy theatrics of the House of Commons? There are many excellent MPs, but Canadians know political expediency can sometimes trump sound policy. Senators are fortunate to be able to make decisions based on evidence and principles.

Franks wrote the real Senate is “the least well-known of all.”

That we will change. We have a new website, SenCAPlus, that shows who we are and what we do. We are improving communications so more people know our contributions.

Canadians are scrutinizing us like never before. We welcome the attention. I am confident anyone taking time to understand the Senate will see its value.