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Sober second thought

At the end of December, Prime Minister Stephen Harper filled 18 vacant seats in the Senate. This move was widely…

By Jesse Kline , in Minority Reports: Politics and power in Canada , on January 23, 2009 Tags: , , , ,

At the end of December, Prime Minister Stephen Harper filled 18 vacant seats in the Senate. This move was widely criticized because Harper had said the seats would remain vacant until the provinces put a system in place to elect senators. But is it possible that the Senate was designed to be ineffective? Is it also possible that Harper’s piecemeal approach to Senate reform would have made things worse?

The Canadian Senate was designed to be a body of “sober second thought” to check the democratic excesses of the House of Commons. However, it has never been an effective check and balance on the power of the House of Commons due to the fact that senators are unelected. Any time the Senate clashes with the House, they are accused of trying to subvert the will of the people.

While I have always accepted that the Senate suffers from a lack of democratic legitimacy, I never thought that it might have been intentionally designed that way. Yet, in his book 1867, Christopher Moore argues the Senate was designed so that it would not have the power to challenge the House of Commons:

The Canadian Senate chamber.
The Canadian Senate chamber.

The main body of reformers did not want the Senate elected quite simply because an elected Senate would be a legitimate and powerful body.… [George] Brown… did not want a conservative upper house that felt itself entitled to challenge the House of Commons. Election was the one sure way to give senators that sense of entitlement.

Since then there have been numerous proposals on how to reform the Senate. The idea behind reforming the body is to create a Triple-E Senate, one that is equal, elected, and effective. However, it’s unclear if Harper’s proposed reforms would create such a body, or if they were even designed to do so.

There were three pieces of legislation involved in the government’s plan for Senate reform. First, it introduced a bill to amend the constitution, which would have limited new senators to an eight year term. The second piece of legislation was designed to put a structure in place whereby the provinces could elect senators, who would then be appointed by the prime minister. The bills never made it into law. The government’s first attempt to amend the constitution was sent to a Senate committee. The committee raised numerous questions about the government’s ability to unilaterally change the constitution and recommended the legislation be referred to the Supreme Court. The government stubbornly reintroduced the bill, which died when parliament was dissolved in September.

Of course, this piecemeal approach to Senate reform is unlikely to produce a Triple-E Senate. First of all, the legislation would have allowed existing senators to serve out their term until age 75. How long would it be before we’d have a house in which all its members were elected? Does anyone really think that a body made up of both elected and unelected members would be any more legitimate than what we have now? So much for the elected and effective part. The third ‘E’ was supposed to come from the Senate, which introduced a bill in 2006 to give more seats to the western provinces. However, this would also require a constitutional change and the bill has yet to leave the Senate.

The biggest problem with Senate reform is that it requires constitutional changes, which are virtually impossible to do in this country. But if Harper’s reforms wouldn’t have created a Triple-E Senate, then what’s the point? Political Science Professor Gerard Horgan has one theory:

The advantage of what is being done with the incremental reform, as I see it, is that it is introducing instability into the system. Right now we have what most people would think of as a stable suboptimal system. By introducing these incremental reforms, it will perhaps cause instability and drive the process forward.

In other words, it’s all together possible that the upper house was designed to be ineffective and is being reformed into a body that will be even less effective than the original. Perhaps we should ask ourselves what we want to get out of Senate reform and have a national discussion about how to achieve it. Because reform, just for the sake of reform itself, is unlikely to produce results that are in the best interests of Canadians.

(Photo courtesy Montréalais/wikipedia.org licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 License)