If our Senate was composed as originally planned, and operated in the way the founders of our Constitution designed it, there’d be no need for discussion of Senate reform.
If politics was practised today in the same way it was done when our nation’s founding fathers drew up Confederation, the Senate would still be a vital body that guarantees that our founding values of peace, order and good government are preserved.
But none of those condition exist today. Therefore, there is merit in the suggestions of three Canadian premiers who say that rather than spending time, energy and money on a debate over Senate reform (which probably won’t accomplish much anyway), we should just scrap it altogether.
Dalton MGuinty of Ontario, Christy Clark of B.C. and Darrell Dexter of Nova Scotia are just three political leaders willing to say publicly what others may be thinking. Considering our Senate, people who watch over our great institutions — and that should include a majority of premiers representing a large enough portion of regional populations to change the Constitution — would likely agree it’s a good idea.
Let’s look at the Senate’s raison d’etre first. The Maple Leaf Web is a non-partisan, non-profit centre based in Lethbridge that seeks to explain politics to Canadians. (Teachers note: it’s a terrific site for students for getting the basics.)
They report that the Senate was originally built into the British North America Act because the elected leaders in the room didn’t trust voters at the time to make good decisions. The idea was that we needed an unelected body to do the “sober second thought” that your average voter in the 1860s wasn’t intellectually capable of doing.
Without a Senate, the theory went, Canada might have adopted slavery — or other stupid things like the Canadian Wheat Board or the Crow Rate.
But today, if there’s anyone questioning the will of the majority on matters of lasting importance to Canada, there are plenty of voters up to the task, with the full rights of raising questions, challenging bad laws in the courts, and acting as watchdogs from both the left and the right.
The notion we foolish voters need protection from ourselves via an unelected Senate is actually rather insulting. And if we did elect the Senate directly, how would we divide powers between two supreme law-making bodies? Which group truly reflects the will of the people?
Originally, the Senate was supposed to be non-partisan. It was supposed to be a body of blue-ribbon thinkers dedicated to higher purposes than partisan or regional politics. It’s just the opposite today. Senate votes are whipped along party lines, just like in Parliament.
Rather than improving law-making, the Senate in its current makeup actually hinders it — even when the government of the day has it salted with enough whippable votes.
There is still merit in a bicameral parliamentary system. There needs to be some mechanism to check the unfettered power of a majority government. And you can’t count on a vigilant electorate to be there all the time to curb a politician’s blind ambition when it inevitably arises.
A general Parliament with power to summon any document, chastise or dismiss any minister, or amend any spending law ought to be able to accomplish that.
Abolition of the Senate should be on the prime minister’s agenda for discussion, just like the tweaks Stephen Harper has already planned.
Even putting the notion on the table would be a message to our leaders — elected, unelected and judiciary — that we are serious about making our Parliament work for all Canadians, for all regions.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.