Political reality sometimes elusive in Senate debate

Perhaps senators have a difficult time sticking to political party lines because they are rarely in the limelight and rarely on the cutting edge of Parliament Hill political debate.

So it was on a recent afternoon that senators were debating the issue of ending the Canadian Wheat Board wheat and barley marketing monopoly and Conservative defenders kept forgetting that the official party line is that while monopoly marketing is a violation of human and property rights for prairie grain farmers, it is perfectly all right for supply management farmers.

They overwhelmingly endorse the system, after all.

But that nuance often seemed lost on Tory senators.

“Every farmer must have the ability to choose how to market their product,” Senate government leader Marjorie LeBreton said at one point. “I think all farmers work hard to produce their products and deserve the right to market them.”

Liberals saw a chance.

So dairy, poultry and egg farmers should have the right to sell outside their monopoly marketing boards if they feel they can do better on their own?

Farmers don’t need a “big brother” overseeing every aspect of their lives, she said.

When the Liberals plowed on, LeBreton repeated her call to farmer freedom but then at the last minute seemed to realize she had to differentiate between good monopolies and bad monopolies.

“This government believes that farmers have earned the right to sell their products freely,” she said. “Now they will have a chance — I’m talking about the Wheat Board now — to do so freely, or they can go through the wheat board as they always have.”

Whew, just in the nick of time, an acknowledgement that not all farmer right to “freedom” is created equal.

But at least on that day, and later when the Senate debates the government CWB bill, the senators were talking about policy substance.

Alas, it is not always so in the Chamber of Sober Second Thought.

Over the course of the past several weeks, including Nov. 22, senators have been returning to debate over a motion from Alberta Liberal senator and former band leader Tommy Banks that calls attention to “Canada’s innate national modesty.”


Liberals are extolling the virtues of our supposed “innate modesty” to harken back to a time when we weren’t running around the world getting into wars and beating our chests about “punching above our weight,” although that actually was a favourite expression of former Liberal deputy prime minister John Manley.

Conservatives are outraged that our history of winning gold medals, claiming hockey supremacy and being a warrior nation is being denigrated by this attempt to make us a nation of forelock-tugging wimps.

Wherever the truth lies in this vital debate, the point is that well-paid and tenured senators are spending some of their time debating this on our dime.

Senate reform legislation is before the House of Commons but unfortunately, it offers no prescription for injecting reality and relevance into the Red Chamber.



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