The Senate We (Don’t) Want

Justin Trudeau’s dismissal of his Senate caucus members was a big surprise, not least for the affected senators. The initial response was more to the surprise than the substance. More thoughtful reactions have followed.

Prime Minister Harper’s expressed preference is for an elected Senate. Getting there is not easy unless the provinces want to cooperate, which they largely don’t. In the meantime he has been obliged to fill positions by appointment. Doing so would have been much more palatable had his selection criteria not been so dominated by service in the Tory trenches.

The exiled senators have been quick to affirm their party loyalty. The only uncertainty is whether to call them Liberals who happen to be senators or senators who happen to be Liberals. They have reformed their caucus and re-elected Jim Cowan as their leader.

Some have expressed delight that they will not be expected to follow Trudeau’s lead in Senate votes. In the days before Trudeau’s announcement would anyone outside of The Hill have noticed, or cared, if they did otherwise? Will the regrouped caucus now follow Jim Cowan’s lead? Will Trudeau and Cowan still have common understandings?

As Cowan himself has said, not much has changed .This is not to entirely dismiss Trudeau’s proposal. His approach for future appointments might gradually diminish the partisan texture of the upper chamber.

It also puts pressure on Harper to follow his lead. Given Harper’s preference for an elected Senate he is extremely unlikely to do so. But what if he did?

Presumable the Conservatives who happen to be senators would caucus as senators who happen to be Conservatives. Not much change there either.

And what of the new appointees? Trudeau vaguely points to the Order of Canada as a model for choosing them. But the Order honours past achievement. They are unlike senators in that the honourees have no collective responsibilities.

Trudeau’s proposal nevertheless represents an improvement over the status quo but it fails to solve many of today’s problems and introduces some new ones.

If the new appointees are supposed to be non-partisan would they be allowed to join either of the existing caucuses? Once the transition to senators selected by the new mechanism was largely complete, would the Senate continue to defer to the House of Commons? Or would the unelected Senators (chosen, as the Conservatives like to acidly point out, by an unelected body) decide that they were equal in status and importance to the elected House of Commons?

Would the new senators begin to form regional caucuses, placing regional interests ahead of national ones?

Suppose instead that Harper gets his way and we have elections of Senators, to eight or nine year terms. The Senate would then almost certainly consider itself an equal to the House of Commons. Given the different election cycles the leading party in the Senate could frequently be different than in the House. As shown by the US experience this would be a recipe for paralysis, perhaps even more so in Canada where either chamber could easily lack a majority party.

Worse, faced with the difficulty of making hard choices on spending, Parliament could instead adopt the US Congress’s enthusiasm for accounting fudges, particularly on public pension plans.

And it would still not address the other big problem with the Senate. The original idea was to provide a chamber of sober second thought to balance the interests of the smaller provinces. It gave the Maritimes the same number of senators as Ontario and Quebec. That is all an interesting historical artifact but entirely out of touch with how the country and the senate have evolved. Ontario and Quebec have grown more quickly since confederation, but the big inequity is with the West.

The four Atlantic provinces have thirty senators. The four Western provinces, with close to five times Atlantic Canada’s population, have twenty-four.

Imagine if the Senate actually began to have some heft, perhaps with partisan caucuses being gradually joined or replaced by regional ones. The likelihood of real and justified western alienation would be considerable.

Is the Senate such a well-loved institution to be worth all this angst? Surely voters should be allowed to express an opinion on that essential question.

Let there be a referendum, coincident with the federal election in October 2015. Let voters provide a clear answer to a clear question—say “Should the Canadian Parliament have a Senate.”

Suppose that 60% of 70% say no. Somehow the politicians, with Supreme Court acquiescence, will find a way to obey the will of the people.


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