Like most Canadians I have paid scant attention to the Senate, taking the word of others that it was, like the human appendix, largely useless– the ultimate reward for party hacks and fundraisers. But the Duffy-Wallin episode forced me to actually listen to the debates on CPAC (quaintly, they have microphones in the Senate chamber but no TV cameras) and I was astounded at what I heard. Unfettered by the need to get re-elected, and with no TV cameras to perform for, the senators treat each other with the greatest courtesy. Partisanship is so muted as to be almost undetectable. There are no raised voices— other than Duffy when he got a little carried away with what my father used to call the “exuberations of his own verbosity.” They refer to each other as “honorable”— a practice long gone from the house of parliament.
When they disagree with a member on the opposite side of the issue, they invariably first preface their disagreement with words of praise for the member opposite’s hard work or wisdom. Because so many of these senators have distinguished and financially successful legal careers behind them (as opposed to many of the lawyers in the Commons), they take to supporting their argument for or against the expulsion of Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau, with actual legal casework citations—not name-calling and jeering. They have quaint housekeeping procedures as well. The rules call for Senate debates to end at 6PM. During the current debate the speeches have run overtime almost daily. When it gets to 6 o’clock Speaker Noel Kinsella rises and says, “Honourable senators, it being six o’clock, I am about to leave the chair, as required in the rules, unless there is unanimous consent we not see the clock. Is there unanimous consent that we not see the clock?
There is no shortage of wit in these debates. When one Senate session resumed for a rare evening sitting after a two-hour supper break Sen. Serge Joyal said, “I’m always reluctant when the Senate sits in the evening, because we all have all kinds of commitments and obligations of a personal or public nature…” a gentle reference to the reality that some parliamentarians’ have been occasionally known to return to the chamber for evening session in an “over-refreshed” state. It’s a real irony that right at a time when the Canadian Senate is at its greatest danger of being abolished, that one discovers this oasis of civility and intelligence that has been hiding in plain sight. School kids who come to Ottawa by the busload and who sit in the galleries in the commons and watch in bemusement at the bear pit below; should perhaps be diverted to the senate galleries. It would be a sort of time-travel experience to a gentler and more agreeable time and place.