The Senate

There is a report, in the Globe and Mail, that Prime Minister Trudeau is about to appoint senateseven new senators:

  • Peter Harder, a retired senior bureaucrat and high-level corporate adviser, to be the Liberal government’s leader in the Senate;
  • Raymonde Gagné, former president of Manitoba’s Université de Saint-Boniface;
  • Frances Lankin, a minister in the former Ontario NDP government and a national security expert;
  • Ratna Omidvar, an expert on migration and diversity, and executive director at Ryerson University’s Global Diversity Exchange;
  • Chantal Petitclerc, a champion Paralympic wheelchair racer and Team Canada chef de mission at the Rio Paralympic Games;
  • André Pratte, an award-winning editorial writer and federalist thinker from Quebec; and
  • Murray Sinclair, a retired Manitoba judge and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission into residential schools.

First: these are all distinguished Canadians, in their own rights and should be welcome additions to the red chamber .. or would be if the Senate of Canada was not an abomination.

Second: the Senate must exist … the Supremes (The Supreme Court of Canada) have made it pretty clear that it it is damned near impossible, even if it was desirable, to abolish it. They are correct. A federal state is a “double democracy;” it is a democratic bargain between the people and the notion of government and it is a democratic bargain between formerly sovereign states (or self governing colonies) to form a union. The first bargain is reflected in the (roughly) equal representation of Canadians, in their communities, in provincial legislatures and in the House of Commons.* (There is, to be sure, some work to do on making the rough equality more equal, but that is in progress.) The Senate of Canada is the essence of the second bargain: each colony, in Canada’s case, surrendered some sovereignty in order to make the federal state work ~ it is in the Senate that the people, in their provinces, pass judgement on the work of federal legislators.

We need to remember that Canada’s constitution was, really, just the second draft of federalism: the US Constitution being the first draft. It, like its US counterpart, reflects the very real concerns of its time (1867) and at that particular time real, liberal, representative democracy was still very much mistrusted: the elites in society were afraid that full blownBingham_1852_The-County-Election popular democracy would destroy society as they knew it ~ and it did, of course, reshape it. An appointed legislative body (as the US Senate was until early in the 20th century) in which “elders” could bring “sober second thought” to the actions of the the elected politicians (often elected at polling places where candidates gave away beer in return for votes). It was a very different society and it made very different choices. Subsequent “drafts” of federal constitutions (Australia’s in the early 20th century and those of Germany and India (both “drafted” in London) in the mid 20th century all feature elected “upper houses.” But the key thing is that they do, as we must, recognize that a federal state really does need a bicameral legislature: one chamber representing all the people, in their communities* and the other representing the constituent parts of the federations, the states of provinces.

Canada, in the 21st century, needs to “catch up” with most other liberal democracies and reform the Senate of Canada.

imagesBack in the 1980s we had the Tripe E movement in Canada: Equal, Elected, Effective. Equality was and remains a stumbling block: how or why should PEI, with a population of less that 150,000 individuals have as much legislative representation as Ontario with a population almost 100 times as large? And what did they mean by “effective?” Eventually, despite Prime Minister Harper’s real desire to reform the Senate, the notion died. Prime Minister Trudeau’s attempts to reform it by making it, somehow, qualitatively “better” looks, to me, like putting lipstick on a pig.

I have come to the conclusion (my own, only) that the proper solution is:

  • Equal, on a regional basis ~ Canada to have five regions, each with 30 senators …
    • Pacific (BC + Yukon) (28+2),
    • Prairies (AB, SK and MB + NWT and NV (12+8+8+1+1),
    • Central (Ontario (30))
    • Eastern (Quebec (30))
    • Atlantic (NB, PEI, NS and NL (10+4+10+6)
  • Elected, on a proportional representation basis during provincial general elections; and
  • Effective, which I believe will evolve, naturally from being popularly elected.

I think, first, that taking anything away from any province, especially Quebec and even PEI, is a recipe for failure; thus my 150 seat Senate. I think that provinces could be persuaded to hold senatorial elections and I think that a “system” to make that happen could pass a Supreme Court test. Finally, I think there is a lot more to being “effective” than just being able to defeat bills and I suspect that an evolutionary process (trial and error) will be able to determine what works for Canada. Being able to defeat bills that impact on the powers in §92 to §95 of the Constitution is, probably, a power the Senate should have, but maybe constitutional convention (a much more powerful thing that written law) should dictate that some ministers ought, always, to come from the Senate: Health, Agriculture, Fisheries, etc …

In any event: kudos to Prime Minister Trudeau for picking some fine Canadians to sit in the senate of Canada …

… they are all distinguished Canadians who have served our country well and who can continue to serve, even in a flawed institution.

But, a challenge to Prime Minister Trudeau, too: take up the task of Senate Reform and give Canada, at last, a democratic, accountable parliament.

___

*  In this the French term “chambre des communes” is a far more accurate, more modern description than the House of Commons which might lead one to think it is distinctive from a “House of Lords” by being a chamber of the “common” people … not so: it is a chamber of communities.

2 thoughts on “The Senate”

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