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Chamber of sober second thought

Attention political junkies: Senate Speaker Noel Kinsella says Canada's house of sober second thought could have video cameras live-streaming its debates as early as this spring.

Cameras were installed in the elected House of Commons in 1977 — many will argue to the detriment of the quality of debate — but the Senate has resisted any such modernization.

Now, a four-senator committee has been assembled to look into televising the appointed upper chamber.

"It is the common view of all senators that we do have to tell our story because the institution is so critical," to the governance of the country, Kinsella said Friday.

For the second week in a row, Kinsella invited parliamentary reporters onto the Senate floor for a lengthy question-and-answer session, where he stoutly defended the Senate's role and work.

His remarks came as Conservative senators held a meeting to discuss the possibility of having their own, stand-alone group that would meet separately from the elected Conservative caucus of MPs.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has distanced himself from the upper chamber, even though it is heavily populated by his own appointees, since a Senate expense scandal reached into his office and claimed his former chief of staff, Nigel Wright.

The RCMP are currently investigating Wright's $90,000 payment to Sen. Mike Duffy as part of an alleged scheme to cover up Duffy's questionable expense claims.

Duffy and two other former Conservatives, Sen. Pamela Wallin and Patrick Brazeau, have been suspended from the Senate over expense issues. Harper also cut loose his government Senate leader Marjory LeBreton and her replacement, Claude Carignan, was not given the traditional cabinet seat.

Three other Conservative senators have announced their early retirements over the last month, the most recent being high-profile Hugh Segal, who had served as Harper's point man on Commonwealth issues for the last two years.

With Parliament adjourned for the Christmas break, Kinsella told reporters that all the Senate scandal coverage has made for a tiring, frustrating year.

He insisted there was no "causal relationship" between the Senate's public image problems and the spate of recent Conservative resignations, but later conceded the scandal is taking its toll.

"I think there's a significant degree of fatigue, but I encourage my colleagues, 'don't take it personal, this is political. And remain focused'," said Kinsella.

"We have a sacred responsibility to do our duty and not to throw your hands up because some people don't think the institution is good."

Currently, only a live audio feed of Senate chamber debate is available that can be streamed online. The general public can also directly access the upper chamber by visiting Parliament Hill and sitting in the Senate gallery.

Kinsella says the committee will look for a modern, user-friendly and inexpensive way to video proceedings and then provide that video to broadcasters, possibly by streaming it live online.

"Hopefully we'll be able to make the decision as to which system is the most cost-efficient by the beginning of the new fiscal year," which begins April 1, said the Speaker.

"There's an imperative that we've got to bring about some renewal, a renaissance of the institution," he said.

The Canadian Press

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