75 Today: Tommy Banks' Last Day as a Senator

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75 Today: Tommy Banks' Last Day as a Senator

Postby jon » Sat Dec 17, 2011 9:58 am

Alberta senator's integrity was his guide
Set to retire from upper house Dec. 17
By Sheila Pratt, Edmonton Journal
December 4, 2011

In a downtown hotel room, eight serious senators lean forward to catch the details of the extraordinary story of nuclear fusion - a new energy source, possibly from seawater, that could be here in just 20 years, explains a University of Alberta professor. Fifty cups of sea water - containing hydrogen isotopes - could provide the energy of two tonnes of coal.

Around the table sits a who's who of Alberta senators: Conservative Bert Brown (Mr. Triple-E Senate), Calgary's Elaine McCoy, Liberal Grant Mitchell and Edmonton's own inimitable Tommy Banks. On the standing committee on energy, environment and natural resources, Alberta is naturally a key player.

The committee, chaired by Conservative David Angus from Quebec, is holding hearings for a report on Canada's energy future. But one of those at the table won't be around to finish the job. On Dec. 17, the white-haired, articulate, independent-minded Banks will turn 75, retirement age in the upper house.

So Banks could have been excused this Wednesday morning if he'd kicked back and just watched - not a chance. It was Banks who brought the fusion experts to the hearing and asked the first questions. How soon? How much will it affect the oilsands?

No leisurely lunch, either. He grabs a quick bite, squeezes in a brief interview, then it's back to the job he loved from the first day he was given it.

"If this job were in downtown Edmonton, you'd have to drag me out with a team of horses," Banks says.

After 11 years and almost eight months of travelling across the country and to Afghanistan, Washington and China, he's ready to come home, spend time with his wife Ida, their children and grandchildren, and "my city."

Banks was 63 when he was appointed to the Senate, a thoroughly unexpected choice given his previous career as master jazz musician, television host and culture advocate. He had little involvement in party politics. He approached the job with an old-school attitude - an ethic of public service, rather than partisan ends - and a deep respect for Parliament.

His strong belief in a senator as an independent voice was reinforced from an experience in the 1990s. From the sidelines on the Canada Council for the Arts, he watched Progressive Conservative senators kill a bill brought in by a Tory government on cultural matters.

"It was a bad bill and that's why the Senate opposed it," Banks recalls. And it died. "So I had a healthy respect for the Senate going in, and when I got there, that's how the Senate operated."

Longtime Liberal colleague Colin Kenny, appointed in 1984, says Banks always operated with independent spirit.

"There's nothing partisan about Tommy at all; he had tough things to say about (former Liberal prime ministers) Paul Martin and Jean Chretien," Kenny says. "He is always concerned about what's right. And he viewed the role of the Senate as calling the government of the day to account, no matter which party it was."

When he arrived in Ottawa, Banks hit the ground running, unlike many new senators, who take time to figure out the system, Kenny says. His years on the Canada Council gave him a leg up. Whenever Kenny came to Edmonton with Banks, he was always impressed with the jazzman's depth of support. "He was so wellloved in Edmonton. When I travelled with him there, people weren't sure if I was a roadie or a groupie.

"He's an exceptional man, no doubt about it."

Bert Brown, a Conservative Senate appointment, agrees that Banks "has served the public well."

"He's tackled a wide range of topics" and he works very hard, said Brown, who was elected in Alberta's 2000 Senate elections, but not appointed until 2007.

While his education was mostly musical, Banks soon demonstrated a natural curiosity for public policy issues, a quick mind and a deft hand at defending Alberta's place on the national stage.

In 2001, Banks was vice-chair of the Liberal committee devising a new deal for Canada's cities. Later, he worked on the Senate's controversial report on illegal drugs and marijuana in 2002. He took the new Species at Risk Act - among many others -through the Senate, and worked on public safety and emergency preparedness after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on in the U.S. in September 2001.

For several years, he was chair of the energy, environment and natural resources standing committee. He also served on standing committees examining finance and national security and defence.

Banks also scored a rare victory on Parliament Hill. He's one of the few senators who managed to get a private member's bill passed and turned into law. It took nine years to get the Statutes Repeal Act enacted into law. The law is designed to prevent governments from passing laws, then not putting them into force.

He loves all the learning the job affords and the inside view of Canada he has had since April 2000.

"Like today, at the energy committee, what a privilege to hear from the best and brightest of people," he said. "I've been going to school for eight years."

There are also the rewards that come from having a direct impact on new policy. For instance, he's proud the new deal for cities report helped convince Paul Martin's Liberal government to hand over a share of the gasoline tax to big cities - the first big breakthrough in urban policy in decades.

More controversial, however, was the Senate's 2002 report on illegal drugs. It called for a national drug strategy, including decriminalization of marijuana and a radical overhaul of education programs away from the then-popular "Just Say No" programs.

"That report is still right, but nobody will do anything with it," he says adamantly.

His two trips to Afghanistan to visit Canadian troops and his work on veterans affairs were highlights, he says, and those reports had a big impact.

Kenny, who led the tour to Afghanistan, says it was Banks's idea to retrace the steps a wounded soldier would take from the battlefield to home to see if there were places for improvement in care.

"We found the system worked well until the soldier got back to Canada," Kenny said. "That's where we called for changes."

But government also moves slowly, Banks has also found. His own private member's bill took nine years to get into law.

It started when Banks discovered that governments of all stripes have a bad habit of passing bills, getting royal assent and then not putting some of them into force. That's poor practice and an affront to Parliament, Banks figured.

So he proposed a new law that says a government has 10 years to put into force any legislation it has passed. After that, any bill not put into effect has to come back to both houses and the government must declare its intention.

So this fall, for the first time under the new law, 49 such bills not put into force were brought forward. Sixteen will go ahead and the rest will be dropped, he says.

Banks was adjudicating a music festival in Kelowna, B.C. when he got the call from the prime minister's office offering him the Senate job. It was out of the blue, he says.

But Banks's appointment caused a bit of a dust-up. The government of then-premier Ralph Klein had recently elected two Albertans, Brown (appointed by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007) and Ted Morton (now provincial energy minister), as senators-in-waiting. Klein wanted the prime minister to choose one of them, but Jean Chretien chose Banks instead.

While recognizing the need for Senate reform, Banks isn't convinced that electing senators is the best way to go, especially if they are elected through political parties. A senator can't really be independent if he or she has to get the party leader's approval to run for office, he says.

"If you have to have someone sign your nomination papers, you only have a semblance of independence - just look at the House of Commons."

Direct election of senators, not through parties, might work, he says.

A better process might be modelled after the process for appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada. A list of seven candidates is vetted by a parliamentary advisory committee, which can question candidates in public. The final decision is up to cabinet.

The country has undergone profound changes during his Senate term, says Banks. And some deeply worry the longtime Liberal. (He quit the party for a few years and joined the Conservatives after the national energy program of the early 1980s. He later returned to the Liberal fold.)

On the positive side, Alberta's standing in Canada has changed a great deal, he says.

"We are in charge in a lot of ways - and right now Alberta is quite literally keeping this country afloat," says Banks. "So we don't have to stomp quite so hard to get heard."

But in recent years, the upper chamber has shifted from a place of sober second thought to become a more partisan forum, says Banks.

Harper's Conservative appointees, he says, have abandoned the role of independent critic for the pursuit of partisan interest.

"The difference derives from the fact that many of the new Conservatives appointees are there on the understanding it is their job to support the government and get the legislation through.

"But that's not the Senate's job - it's supposed to be to raise questions."

In the early 2000s, when both the Senate and House of Commons had Liberal majorities, senators often sent legislation back to the House of Commons for amendments, he recalls.

"We routinely amended legislation directly and sometimes we defeated and stopped the Liberal government," says Banks. "We made hundreds of amendments, though this did not always please Liberal ministers."

In the last three years, no bill has been sent by the Senate back to the House of Commons for amendment, he says.

"We hope, and if I'm right, over time the (Harper-appointed senators) will come to realize that their job is to pose questions - though I don't want to presume how to tell a senator to do his job. "

Banks has also had a ringside seat in recent years as the Conservative Harper government has moved the country to the right, prorogued Parliament three times and put tight controls on his caucus and the civil services.

Sometimes, says Banks, he's not sure he recognizes the country where the Liberal party was once the natural governing party.

"Over the past couple of years, Mr. Harper has quietly engineered so many changes that in some senses our country is barely recognizable," he wrote in a 2008 article entitled "Where Did Canada Go?" that first appeared on the Liberal senator's blog site.

By "moving one little brick at a time," the Harper government has done major renovation, with little notice. A dozen organizations - independent voices such as the Law Reform Commission of Canada, the Court Challenges Program, adult literacy, the Status of Women - lost their funding. Funding for promoting Canadian artists internationally was also cut.

"All done quietly, no fuss, no outcry," he writes.

This summer, Banks wrote that the supremacy of Parliament over the executive, or cabinet, is being undermined, not just by Harper but by preceding Liberal prime ministers as power is centralized.

Both senators and members of the House of Commons have failed to resist "the creeping concentration of power in the hands of prime ministers," Banks wrote.

"So long as parliamentarians remain inert, so long as they allow prime ministers and other ministers of the Crown to treat them like doormats, the trend will continue toward an ever more powerful inner circle immune to parliamentary authority."

But Banks is a naturally optimistic person.

So even though the Liberal party is at its lowest ebb ever, he's sure it can be revived.

But it has to adapt to some new realities, he says.

"We've done a terrible job explaining our message, partly because we don't have any money."

It was the Liberal government of Jean Chretien that passed new rules barring contributions from corporations and unions to political parties.

"But our party did not react by looking for other sources of revenue," he says. "The party has not changed with the times."

But that won't be his job. Banks says his days in active politics are, for the most part, over.

"I'll vote and I'll take some phone calls."

Mostly, he and Ida want "to do nothing," though he predicts that won't last long. He'll be looking look for a few gigs, which shouldn't be hard to find. He's already slated to conduct a concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra next April. And Edmonton will be happy to hear more music again.
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Re: 75 Today: Tommy Banks' Last Day as a Senator

Postby jon » Sat Dec 17, 2011 10:04 am

What the article does not mention is Tommy's Radio experience. He was announcer and musician for CKUA from 1952 to 1983. He also did a tremendous amount of Production-related Radio work, in both Commercials and Imaging, not just locally, but for customers all across Western Canada. CKOV Kelowna, for example, was a repeat customer for his station jingle packages.

Now that he is retiring, we hope to see a lot more of him as he increases his activity as a long-time member of the Edmonton Broadcasters Club.
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