Guest Blog: Micah Goldberg on Senate Reform

In America, the Book, Samantha Bee half-jokingly wrote that Canadians were too polite to cause a fuss over our redundant Senate. Seemingly, the times have changed. Senate reform has recently become a fairly hot topic in Canada, especially since our Prime Minister has tabled a bill that would
begin enforcing nine year term limits on senators appointed since 2008. Those appointed before 2008 will be grandfathered in, exempt from the term limits.

Mr. Harper believes that this is the first step towards a more legitimate Senate, and has even placed a non-binding stipulation (so, more like a suggestion) that provinces use elections as an opportunity to let voters select potential Senate nominees from a list. The Prime Minister would use those results in deciding whom to appoint.

The beauty of the Senate Reform Act, according to Conservatives, is that there would be no need to open up a Constitutional debate. This bill walks around the need to engage with premiers, or the Canadian people themselves. Discussion on the constitutional status of such a reform aside, I strongly believe the time has come to consider the value of the Senate, even with the reforms the Prime
Minister is recommending.

Arguing against the status quo of the Senate is anything but challenging. The Fathers of Confederation intended the Senate to ensure the expression of Canada’s regional minorities. A realm of sober second thought, protecting Canadians from the flare-up of popular passions. It was supposed to keep the long-term interests of constituents in mind without the constant distraction of an upcoming election. The intentions of the Fathers have not been realised. If the Senate can be called a check on the House of Commons, then Iran has the most sophisticated checks and balances among all nations.

A senator needs to be fairly close with the government of the day to get a seat in the Senate. After all the time being a loyal party member, it is hard to believe that once a senator ascends to power, they would turn the tables on the government and protest the bills written by the one person they owe their jobs to. As a regional protector, they have failed. Appointed to serve their party, and above all, he who appointed them, regional interests are consistently ignored. Moreover, Senate appointments have typically gone to party loyalist from the most populist urban areas, and thus have the least credibility as regional spokespeople. The Senate has little, if anything, to do with the provinces. As an institution for sober second thought, the Senate has failed. Senators regularly concede to the will of the Lower House without putting up much of a fight, if any, and therefore cannot be accountable to the long-term interests of Canadians. It remains filled with partisans that defeat the purpose of have a second federal legislature. There is no check on the Prime Minister, nor his government, and therefore its members sit, showered by wealth and privileges, with a title that makes a mockery of Canadian democracy.

The Parliament exists, as Serge Joyal writes, “for one reason only – to empower the people of Canada”, and the Senate has failed to do that. Aside from the expansive salaries, office space, expense accounts, research and secretarial assistants, pension plans and other benefits, all of which paid for by tax dollars, the Senate is useless and undemocratic. Our first Prime Minister argued that the Upper House is only valuable “as a regulating body, calmly considering legislation”, and that there is no use for it if it “did not exercise the right of opposing or amending legislation from the Lower House”. The only time this right was used in any significant manner is when Bridgette DePape decided to claim her fifteen seconds of fame.

The time has certainly come to change the status quo. All three major Canadian parties agree as much. The question, then, is how to initiate it. Ronald Watts writes that “While most Canadians agree that it should be reformed, disagreement about the appropriate reform has left it unreformed”.

Brian Mulroney found out the hard way, Canadians have their own opinions on how to make the Senate more accountable, but without consensus, efforts for reform stall.

The regular author of this blog and my friend, Joseph Uranowski, among many others believe in the inherent worthiness of a bicameral legislature, and would favour reform over outright abolition; however, with no consensus on a fundamental path outlining how exactly to achieve that goal, the Senate will remain unreformed, unimproved, undemocratic, and useless.

I join my own Premier (Gord Selinger of Manitoba) as well as the premiers of Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and the Leader of the Official Opposition to favour abolishing the Senate.

I must admit that I do have compassion for those Canadians who want a more thoughtful Senate. In America, the gridlock of a bicameral legislature more or less ensures that passed legislation is truly legitimate. But I am not convinced that it would enrich our system more than settling with a unicameral legislature. In the first place, it is perhaps unsavoury for many people (specifically those in populated centers) to have Ontario, with a population of well over five million to have the same representation as an island with around 150,000 people. Even if one does figure out a system of representation agreeable to all, the next stage is figuring out what terms to give these people. Second, we need to figure out how to give senators their jobs. If we elect Senators as the Americans do, electing a third of them every two years, it will actually be a more unstable institution, and cost us more than the status quo. The senate will be even more susceptible to common passions with the constant influx of new members. Third, we need to outline who has which power. The Founders intentionally made the lower house more powerful than the upper house to avoid power struggles over public finances. Only the House was supposed to be backed by popular will, the Senate was simply supposed to be a complementary institution. These, of course, are only three associated issues, and provide good context for the problems those who advocate reform face.

The next step for Senate reform is a referendum followed by an Accord. The Conservatives claim that Canadians do not want drawn-out talks about the Charter. I do want that. Canadians pay for the Senate, and deserve to have their voices heard on what to do with a dysfunctional gaping hole in tax-payer dollars. Small changes to the Senate will not cut it.

The time has come to make a serious decision about the Senate: can Canadians compromise, or should we just, as I argue, abolish the institution?

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Follow @micahgoldberg on the twitter. His political commentary is always excellent.

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2 responses to “Guest Blog: Micah Goldberg on Senate Reform

  1. If we actually had a thoughtful Senate, or thoughtful Senators, people may think it was useful. Hugh Segal is an example of a thoughtful Senator. Think of some of the others. Pamela Wallin, Mike Duffy, who are just partisan shills that contribute little. Disgraced former Senators. This may actually be the time where we see the Senate disappear; I never thought I would see the day.

  2. While I agree with the abolition of the Senate, I strongly believe that we need a referendum to decide on this question, to have it settled once and for all. Another thing about holding a referendum, it will engage Canadians in a discussion on what democracy is all about. I think in the long run this could be more valuable than whatever decision that comes out of the referendum itself.

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