CENTRAL BEDEQUE — Catherine Callbeck admits the Senate she entered is far different than the one she is leaving behind.
“For the first two years the number of workaholics in that Senate was more than in any group that I worked with,” Callbeck added. “But, you know lately, I think that the appointments have changed that somewhat.”
She has no qualms discussing how she feels that the Red Chamber has changed since she was first appointed, saying, in recent years, it has become partisan. It’s something, said the now retired senator, that came with the change in government, from Liberal to the current Conservative administration.
Callbecks talks about being around the committee table in those early days. Opinions were shared and, most often, no one knew whether the Senator speaking was Liberal or Conservative.
She feels that isn’t the case now.
“Now you go into a committee meeting and you certainly figure it out.”
And she quickly adds.
“Now we (former Liberal senators) are independent. I have no problem with that at all. The way I function didn’t change.”
And the so-called Senate scandal hasn’t helped.
Callbeck doesn’t comment on the 31 criminal charges laid earlier this week against disgraced P.E.I senator Mike Duffy or even on Duffy at all.
When questioned about if she agreed with Duffy’s appointment, always diplomatic, Callbeck was careful with her answer.
“Well, look, this whole thing right now is before the courts. My answer to that is let the courts settle this whole matter.”
Callbeck believes in Senate reform and changing how senators are appointed.
She’s hopeful it will happen and that it will come through it stronger than ever.
“There is a lot of work to be done but I think the Senate will eventually get there,” added Callbeck. “It’s a very valuable institution. There has to be a lot of time communicating to the Canadian public how the Senate is set up and how it functions.”
She admitted confidence in the institution and its work is at an all-time low.
“It changed the whole atmosphere in the Senate and also with the Canadian people. The Senate lost the confidence of many Canadians who are now, most, calling to abolish the Senate or reform it in some way,” she said. “Senators are really, now that the Supreme Court has ruled, looking at how that can be done.”
Callbeck suggested that, as is the case with the appointment of Supreme Court justices, future potential Senate candidates be vetted.
“Right now, the process is that the prime minister can pick whoever he wants, as long as they are 30, own a bit of land and have $4,000 in assets,” she explained. “I would like to see some system whereby there could be a list that the prime minister — and by the constitution he had to make the appointment — would make the appointment but at lease these people would have been vetted first.”
A political background, for her, was invaluable when it came to committee work, representing Islanders and their concerns.
She didn’t say that should be a prerequisite but would be an asset.
“Look, politics is exciting. You never know what’s coming. Mind you, being in the Senate was very different than being in the legislature and the House of Commons in that I didn’t have as many constituency demands, but I still had a lot of people contacting me because they had dealt with me before,” said Callbeck.
“I was the one, I guess, that they knew and I liked that because you could really get to the bottom of something. I worked with the MLAs and the MPs in trying to get that concern or challenge in the constituency worked out.
“A lot of senators don’t have that experience because they have never been in politics before ore public office so they don’t have people calling them.”
Admittedly, the scandal made it hard to do business but work did carry on.
“It did overshadow what we were doing. It seemed to take over.”
She referred to core funding being cut to literacy alliances across the country, including that on P.E.I., an issue Callbeck feels strongly about but one, she added, has been overshadowed in the Island media by the ongoing Duffy scandal.
“It affects so many people that have low literacy skills and can’t read and comprehend. This affects the individual, their families and it has been overshadowed completely.”
She, like all sitting Senators, has felt the backlash and has been under the microscope, her expenses under question and subject to audit.
“It’s a very time-consuming thing. I asked to be audited early because I was going to be leaving in July. They have all the information that they need, as far as I know,” added Callbeck. “I have been forthright with them, given them everything they need. I can tell you that it is very thorough. They look at every five cents that has been spent.”
Although unfortunate, it’s something she doesn’t disagree with and something she hopes will improve Canadians’ confidence in the Red Chamber.
Callbeck admitted its not how she wanted to end her time as a senator.
When asked if she were to be tapped today for the role if she would accept, she simply replied, “That’s a question I couldn’t begin to answer.”