Surprise surprise: the Senate is embroiled in a rather delicate situation, with several members being investigated for various offences. The three offenders that stand out most right now are Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau, and Mike Duffy, all appointed as Conservative Senators in 2008 and 2009. The scandal involves expense claims, perhaps most outrageously with Wallin's $350 000 travel budget during a two-year period.
However, as much as people would like to focus on the fact that this is a problem with the Conservative Party, it's distinctly non-partisan. Liberal Senators are in the same position, most notably with Mac Harb, who is accused of claiming residency outside of Ottawa in order to claim living expenses for work in Ottawa. It's evident that the problem is not necessarily with the Senators themselves, but with a system of appointments, where someone is handpicked to join the Senate and may remain there for, in some cases, decades.
Although the problem (even upon a quick glance) is very much a systemic one, political parties and the media are attacking individual Senators and claiming that they are the problem. While they may be emblematic of the abuse and unaccountability, these Senators are behaving in a certain way because there is minimal transparency and they are not held to account by the Canadian public through, for instance, voting. Justin Trudeau recently remarked that the problem could be fixed by picking "higher-calibre Senators". What that means, for one, is unclear, and it further contributes to an institution that is simply designed for people to not be responsible and open.
What's perhaps most interesting about this story is how it fits into the public image of Stephen Harper as harmless, practical, and looking after Canada's best interests. Widely viewed as a reformer (in the grassroots Reform Party vein), he was elected partially on a promise to democratise the Senate. Upon assuming office he has since (conveniently) forgotten about this promise. Of course it is reasonable enough to say that he hasn't done anything because it's a difficult system to change, but he has actively, not just tacitly, maintained the status quo with respect to the Senate. Since becoming Prime Minister he has appointed numerous new Senators, Wallin, Brazeau, and Duffy among them.
If that's not evidence enough that Harper has only limited desire to reform the Senate, consider this: Stephen Harper has been one of Canada's most undemocratic leaders. Two prorogations, allegations of electoral fraud, and a charge of contempt of parliament. Beyond this, he's muzzled scientists, labelled activists as terrorists, and changed the rules on who may ask him questions at press meetings. How serious can he be about promoting greater democracy?
Like many Canadians, I'm saddened by the degeneration of Canada's democratic institutions and I'm nervous about their ability to rebound. I have hope that there is a critical mass out there who is concerned about reviving accountability and transparency in our system.