Most Canadians would be hard pressed to name any of Canada’s 105 senators. That’s the nature of the beast.
Our senators are appointed by the governor-general on the recommendation of the prime minister. They require no public support or accountability to serve until age 75, and barring a scandal they rarely make news.
There are very active and thoughtful senators who not only provide “sober second thought” to legislation passed in the House of Commons, but also propose important changes to bills and new initiatives, and deserve wider recognition.
Among them is Montreal-born and raised Hugh Segal, 62, who is ready to see his own job eliminated, if that’s what voters want in a referendum on Senate reform he’s advocated since his appointment in 2005.
Segal is unusual because at a young age he became a Red Tory, bucking his Liberal roots. He was raised in a working-class and liberal milieu and his father, Morris, an insurance salesman and sometimes taxi driver, worked for Liberal MP Milton Klein in the old, heavily Jewish riding of Cartier. The Progressive Conservative brand was absent from the scene.
“I was 13 when John Diefenbaker came to Talmud Torah (a Jewish elementary school) in 1962,” Segal recalled. “He presented a copy of the Canadian Bill of Rights to Ben Beutel (then the school president), and made a remarkable speech about putting your shoulder to the wheel, and said there’s a place for everybody in Canada, no matter how many syllables there are to your name.
“I went home for Friday night dinner and said I was joining the party and would support the PC candidate in Mount Royal riding. When my father said, ‘over my dead body,’ as a teenager I knew I was on to something good,” he said.
His mother, Sadie Dankner, suggested he write to all party leaders, which he did, and Diefenbaker was the only one to respond with a personal note.
Young Segal never looked back, though Mount Royal riding was and remains solidly Liberal and most of Montreal remained a Conservative wasteland.
Anyone who knew Segal as a young man (as I did, being a good friend of his older brother Brian) was impressed by his precocious nature. It was no surprise that his talent would be broadly recognized.
After studying at the University of Ottawa, his political acumen and sharp mind were recognized by big business and big Tories. He served as a vice-president at Labatts, was legislative secretary to Ontario premier Bill Davis and chief of staff to former prime minister Brian Mulroney.
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“I have always felt comfortable in the centre to centre-left Tory range,” he said. He later taught at Queen’s University in Kingston and served as president of the Institute for Research on Public Policy, a non-partisan think-tank based in Montreal, all of which contributed to his being appointed to the Senate in 2005 by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin. Segal was 55.
Segal does not see eye-to-eye on all issues with the current government, and uses a double negative to describe his view of Harper back when he was part of the Reform Party: “I realized there was a lot more to him than how he had been portrayed and on a whole host of issues there were areas where I did not feel uncomfortable.”
Because the Senate only gets covered when something sensational happens—the auditing of expense claims and use of living allowance subsidies by Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy and criminal charges against Patrick Brazeau are examples—few have heard of Segal’s opposition to a recent private member’s bill for its “anti-labour bias.”
Segal blasted the legislation for singling out unions as the only organizations that would be required to disclose every purchase made over $5,000 and the amount of time union employees spent on “political activities.”
The bill “diminishes the imperative of free speech, freedom of assembly and free collective bargaining,” he told the Senate, adding that if unions have to disclose, so should a host of other associations. Segal says he’s confident the bill will be amended.
He also denounced as “inhumane and unconstructive” a government bill that would take away employment insurance benefits from people who are eligible as they begin prison terms.
Segal continues to push for a guaranteed annual income as a money-saving way to provide an income threshold for the working poor and as a replacement for welfare.
“I haven’t had any restraints at all. I sit in the Conservative Senate caucus and the overall caucus.”
As for the furor over alleged abuse of Senate expense and living allowances, Segal says he is not surprised it has resulted in a “rapid escalation of contempt.” Senate appointments are commonly seen as a way for the prime minister to reward party bagmen, backroomers and losing candidates for Parliament.
Segal noted that Senator Lowell Murray had served 32 years when he retired in 2011. “When you have a term that lasts so long, it strikes most people in a modern democracy as odd, if not perverse.”
However, the Senate has made major changes to legislation and Segal cited cases when the Martin and Harper governments “raced back to the Senate to fix something that passed too quickly and was technically a disaster.”
Recognizing the non-democratic nature of the Senate, Segal has introduced formal motions several times for a referendum on whether Canadians want to abolish it. He has also supported a bill to allow provinces to hold elections for Senate vacancies. Last year, in a Notice of Inquiry, he called for democratic reform of the Senate – a change he says is “necessary and essential to Canada’s future as a robust and effective federal state.”
While the average term lasts 11 years, Segal says of his own appointment, “I’ve never seen it as a permanent sinecure.”
His motions were “not popular” with sitting Liberal, Conservative and Independent senators, he says, and the proposals died on the Order Paper.
Senators get a basic salary of $132,300, plus a living allowance for those whose principle residence is more than 100 kilometres from Ottawa, plus travel expenses. Last year, the Senate sat for 88 days. In 2011 it sat for 64 days.