Sunday, June 5, 2011

On second (sober) thought...

The Senate is a curious discussion topic. Most people don't follow it, yet many have incredibly strong views about it - almost all negative. I find this frustrating, and another example of why we need to demonstrate a greater degree of engagement on the topic of our democratic institutions.

Before going further, I feel I should start by noting that I am not a Senate apologist. I do believe that the Senate is a strong candidate for reform.

That said, I think all of our democratic institutions are in need of reform. The principal arenas for considering the challenges and opportunities facing Canada have, sadly, not shown themselves up to the task in recent years.

So what of the Senate?

Let's start with the nuts and bolts. The intent was to create a body which would represent regional views, and offer a second, sober thought to balance against the populist-driven views expressed through the representation by population-based structure of the Commons.

There are 105 Senators, broken down as follows:

- 24 from Ontario;
- 24 from Quebec;
- 24 from the Maritimes (10 for Nova Scotia, 10 for New Brunswick, 4 for PEI);
- 24 for the West (6 each for Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and BC);
- 6 from Newfoundland and Labrador; and
- 1 each from the Yukon, the NWT and Nunavut.

Senators are appointed by the Governor General, effectively on the advice of the Prime Minister, and serve until the age of 75. And while the Chamber can be used to originate legislation (save for money bills), it has more or less grown to be seen as simply a step in the process a bill goes through to become a law, particularly if the government has a majority in both the Commons and the Senate as we now have.

To recap, we have what on the surface appears to be an unequal, appointed, and not typically effective upper chamber. In other words, a body ripe for reform.

Unfortunately, much of the substantive reform - the structure and powers of the Senate - would require constitutional amendment. As politics watchers in Canada will know, such reform does not come easily.

So is that it? Is there anything that can be done? In a word, yes.

Let me start by saying that I believe the Senate has often been unfairly painted as a meaningless body; a chamber which offers little to the policy consideration and decision-making processes in Canada.

If you don't agree, I would highly recommend attending a Senate Committee hearing - particularly one which is not discussing a government bill, but instead is studying a more broad-based issue.

In these instances, the views expressed by many Senators are reasoned and offer much for thought. The perspective they provide is a useful contrast with the more (a) party-focused or (b) more narrow constituent-based views, both expressed in the Commons. They are typically less partisan, work more effectively together and in the best situations enrich policy discussions with real-life experiences and perspective.

But this effective dialogue falls under the radar. Why? To borrow from Eric Clapton, "it's in the way that you use it."

Governments, regardless of political stripe, have used their power of appointment to control the Senate and advance their own legislative agenda. As a result, it is increasingly seen as a place where defeated candidates, party fundraisers and other partisan operatives wind up. To these eyes, more of a reward and less of an important role in the legislative process.

And for A Guy Watching Politics, therein lies a the roots of a non-constitutional solution to this issue.

Basically, absent a constitutional amendment we are stuck with what we have. So how do we make the best use of what we have? It's in the way that we use it.

1. Seek agreement among the provinces as to how Senators will be appointed.

Public sentiment is on the side of reform, so harness this consensus and make the case for an appointment process that makes sense in the 21st century. Much of the public resentment has stemmed from how governments have filled the chamber - something completely in their control to change.

I favour elections which do not occur as part of the normal (if there is a such thing as normal) cycle of federal elections. Candidates for a vacant provincial Senate seat should appear on the ballot of the next provincial election.

Personally, I also feel Senate candidates should stand without party affiliation. Free the candidates from party affiliation, and ask that they be considered based on what they bring to the table, and not by which party they represent. A bridge too far, perhaps...

2. Funding.

This point actually applies to both the House and Senate. The Committees of both chambers are tasked with considering legislation, policy, market and societal trends. Yet their means to do so is limited. Compare what a Congressional Committee can do in the U.S. with what a Parliamentary Committee can do in Canada, and you will see what I mean.

The Senate and its Committees need the resources to do the job we are asking of them. Fund them well, and ask them to consider the hard questions and provide real options.

3. Think Canada.

Yes, this would be a departure from the intent of the Senate. The chamber was intended to be a regional voice; a more "informed" counter-balance to the views of the Commons.

However, our politics is already regionally fragmented. The Senate could now offer an opportunity to challenge the Commons to think of the country as a whole. What makes sense for Canada? The Senate could play a role in taking our politics away from a focus on "the base" and "swing ridings" and towards a more meaningful discussion on what Canada needs to do to succeed.


Those are some initial thoughts. I would love to shorter term limits, along the lines of the 10-15 year period we are hearing about but that would require a constitutional amendment. So we are left with the low hanging fruit/

Elect them and have the Prime Minister appoint who has been elected - no more staffers and fund raisers, please. Empower them by giving them the resources to conduct a proper review of legislation and other policy issues of importance. And free them up from the regional parochialism that is increasingly dominating our politics - encourage them to consider what is before them from the perspective of Canada.

What about you? Any second (sober) thoughts? Let me know.


  1. Great post!

    I, apparently, am one of the few who does not see the Senate as useless. I agree with you that they do great work. But I believe the reason they do good work is because it is less political. I truly believe the moment elections enter the Senate, it will turn it into the circus you see in Parliament. Canada will be forgotten and winning elections will be the ultimate goal. I don't believe the idea of removing party affiliation will change this significantly. Maybe I'm being too much of a cynic.

    I do think the appoitment process could be reformed. Patronage needs to go. I think the PM should explain to Canadians why a certain individual shoule be appointed. Maybe there should be debates in the House. Perhaps an equally represented Parliamentary committee could be formed to choose from candidates. After all, we did elect these people to speak on our behalf.

    I would be comfortable with continuing appointments, if it were more responsible and with the addition of term limits. Lifetime appointments are ridiculous.

    You say that leaders ultimately should become good statesmen. Well, appointing Senators is one way for the public to decide if the leader they have is playing politics or being a statesman. Are they in it for political gain, or do they truly care about Canada.

    Those are my thoughts. All alternatives have their pros and cons. And none of the reforms will be easy. But it's time to discuss ideas and get to work on fixing out complete system.


  2. Thanks for the comment, Kendall. Your points are great, and highlight the challenges that Senate reform present. There are no easy answers. Sometimes, I feel that what we have is the best we can hope for - but to be honest, that is not a feeling with which I am comfortable. There has to be a better way.

    I do believe that over time we need to move to an elected body of some sort. It already is political (though not as overtly partisan), but at this time it is not accountable. That accountability piece is important and can only really become part of the process through elections.

    Let's keep the chat going - this is an important issue.


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