NATIONAL AFFAIRS COLUMN
by Tim Harper
It's derided as a toothless, bloated debating society, an anachronism in 2013, a den of patronage and a political body that delivers nothing for its pricetag.
And this week, the Senate could be killed.
Not here, of course, but in Ireland where voters can pronounce on the future of their Upper House in a Friday referendum.
The one-time home of William Butler Yeats is not expected to survive, continuing a trend worldwide of discredited upper houses being loudly retired.
The Irish experience is being closely watched by some here at home, including New Democrats, who have pushed their "roll up the red carpet" abolition campaign and even some Conservatives who wistfully look at the ease with which the Irish can dispatch their second chamber.
A much smaller country, its leaders are not confined by the constitutional straitjacket in which Canadian politicians find themselves.
Stripped of the limiting combinations of provincial and population support needed here to reform or abolish, Ireland needs only a simple vote of 50 per cent plus one next Friday.
No regional court or constitutional challenge looms.
This Senate, teetering on the brink of extinction, is largely based on the Canadian model, established in the 1920s, then weakened but enshrined in the 1937 Irish constitution.
The man behind the abolition move, Prime Minister Enda Kenny, like Stephen
Harper, came to power with a long history of disdain for the Senate and a vow to reform or abolish.
Unlike Harper, he is acting on his conviction.
The Irish even have their own Mike Duffy, a former elected member named Ivor Callely, snared in a scandal regarding his primary residence and his penchant for charging overnight expenses in Dublin while maintaining a home there.
But - take note, Duffy - he challenged a government committee's characterization of him as "a pariah" who had acted despicably while in the Senate, won and was reinstated, before running into further expense trouble.
The Irish move is also being watched closely because Kenny is pushing for the Senate shuttering in the name of austerity.
Ireland would be one of the very few countries to save money by eliminating politicians.
He would also be following the Nordic countries, all of whom have abolished their Senates, and he has cited New Zealand as a country that abolished its upper house but instituted proper checks and balances in a single legislative body.
The Irish Parliament is dominated by the 166 legislators of the lower house, the Dail, the equivalent of the Canadian House of Commons. Its 60 members of the Senate arrive by various routes, appointed by so-called "vocational panels" made up of elected legislators, senators and local councillors.
Eleven are directly appointed by the prime minister, but it is a home for failed candidates and young party operatives, giving rise to one characterization of it as alternately a "retirement home and nursery.''
The arguments being made during this low-key campaign are ones that dominate similar Canadian discussions, but it is becoming quite clear that fewer and fewer countries are opting for an appointed Upper House.
Des O'Malley, a former Irish cabinet minister, pointed out in one published piece that very few of the small democracies in central and Eastern Europe that emerged after the fall of communism chose to establish a second house.
An elected senate with power equal to the elected lower house leads to paralysis.
More and more governments, when faced with the alternatives of a fully appointed chamber or one with equal standing, are taking the abolition route.
The list of those who have rid themselves of an upper house is long and varied, and goes from Croatia to Venezuela, Estonia to India.
Here at home, the NDP has vowed to abolish the Senate, Harper has stated that if it cannot be reformed, it should be abolished.
But there is another wild card at play leading to Friday's vote.
Although the polls show abolitionists winning, the debate is hardly firing Irish passions and a low turnout could actually lead to a vote to maintain the chamber.
That is something else to be closely studied by Canadian politicians.
When voters are faced with the constitutional labyrinth that meaningful Senate reform entails, will they pack up the pitchforks they once threatened to take up in the name of Duffy, Pamela Wallin, Patrick Brazeau and Mac Harb?
Other countries may be killing their senates, but here, historically, we generally mock the institution, then let sleeping senators lie.
Tim Harper is a national affairs writer. His column appears Monday, Wednesday
and Friday. firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter:@nutgraf1