First things first: The activity that Senator Don Meredith is alleged to have undertaken with a teenage girl is disgraceful and incompatible with membership in Canada’s upper house of Parliament.
This comes only days after separate allegations that Meredith sexually harassed and bullied members of his staff. According to CTV News, those claims were made by four former female staffers and four other Senate employees and are now being investigated by the Senate as part of a “workplace assessment.”
Of course, nothing has been proven. But taken together this should be enough for the Senate to suspend Meredith while an investigation is carried out – if he doesn’t do the right thing himself and step down immediately. The trail of emails and texts revealing an inappropriate relationship with a young woman who was 16 and 17 years old at the time, reported on Thursday by the Toronto Star’s Kevin Donovan, speaks for itself. The Conservative party itself has drawn its own conclusions and expelled Meredith from its caucus.
This is the worst possible news for the Senate as the Mike Duffy trial churns on and the stench left by Patrick Brazeau, Pamela Wallin and the others hangs in the air. More importantly, though, it raises new questions about the judgment of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who appointed all these people and quite rightly must take responsibility for the consequences.
What, if any, vetting process did Meredith go through before Harper named him to the Senate in 2010? In all likelihood, none. Appointments to the Senate are treated like so many other patronage positions – to be arbitrarily gifted by the government of the day to its maximum political advantage.
It’s always been that way, so where’s the news? Perhaps, just perhaps, the pattern of entitlement and misbehaviour revealed so starkly in the Senate scandals may tip public opinion into demanding real change.
It should. Canadians deserve much better. Harper knew that, and even acknowledged it, in 2006 when he took power and announced a “new era of accountability.” He set up a Public Appointments Commission to ensure that federal jobs (though not Senate seats) were given on merit and not just doled out to friends of the party in power. But he quickly scrapped the commission when Parliament refused to name the person he wanted to head it.
Harper was on the right track nine years ago. But he went in the opposite direction and now it’s up to others to fix the mess. The NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, for example, says he would revive the idea of an independent public appointments panel.
That’s a good idea, but it would not address the issue of who is named to the Senate and how they’re chosen. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau proposed something this week that would at least start to address that question when he announced his ambitious program for government reform.
He would set up a “non-partisan, merit-based, broad and diverse process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments.” Everything would depend on the details, and how seriously a future PM took the advice. But it does point in the direction of a better way to name members of what remains one of our two houses of Parliament – whether we like it or not.
Canadians are disgusted by the goings-on in the Senate, and they should be. The allegations against Meredith add to what is clearly an institutional breakdown, not just a string of personal failures. It needs an institutional fix, and that will happen only if voters hold onto their anger and make it count in the coming election.