More on the Senate

I am returning to the subject of the Senate, after only a few days, because of a column that John Ibitson wrote for the Globe and Mail about two weeks ago. He said, and I agree, that, “For most of Canada’s history, the Senate has been an embarrassment, viewed by the public as an unelected slough of overpaid, underworked party hacks inhabiting an institution worthy only of contempt … [but, he says that almost] … Everyone agrees that, because of the Liberal reforms, the calibre of appointments on Mr. Trudeau’s watch has been very high. Because of the reforms, more than 10 per cent of the Senate is Indigenous, and almost half are women. Because of the reforms, the Senate has returned about 30 per cent of bills back to the Commons with proposed amendments, a far higher percentage than in the past.

But he opens by saying something with which I disagree, in some small part: “The Canadian Senate should be credible, independent but subordinate. Thanks to Justin Trudeau’s reforms, the Red Chamber today is closer to that ideal than at any time in its past. If Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister, the Conservative Leader should build on these improvements rather than scuttling them, as he has threatened to do.” It is the word “subordinate” that troubles me. It is true, and proper, that the Senate should not be able to initiate or amend “money bills,” those which levy taxes. We have about 1,000 years of parliamentary custom convention, going all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemote, which says that the people, represented by elders (wise-men, ealdormen (modern aldermen)) and, later, elected (selected) from amongst the knights of the shires and burgesses and now, from amongst all citizens, have the power to constrain the sovereign (and her government) by controlling the purse strings.

In our modern, Westminster system, in a federal state, the House of Commons, the chambre des communes in French, which represents us all, more or less equally, in our colonial-social-v2communities (ridings) retains that power over the purse strings. The Senate is not subordinate in being, somehow, less wise than the House of Commons, in fact, it was called the ‘chamber of sober second thought‘ back when people worried, with good reason in 19th century Canada, that members of parliament could be bought for a few pints of RIp-sergeant-robert-alan-shortbeer.  The Senate is, in my opinion, rather like the tough, crusty old platoon sergeant who keeps a young lieutenant, the platoon commander, on the right track by guiding him towards better decisions … that’s what the Senate tried to do with Bill C-69, as Mr Ibbitdon points out. The Senate is a partner, in the national legislature which represents the interests of the same people, but, this time, in their provinces, which are, despite great variations in size, wealth and so on, equal partners in confederation. Yes, it is “subordinate” in that it should not have all the powers of the House of Commons, but it is a coequal partner in the legislative system.

Mr Ibittson is pleased with both the quality of the senators appointed by Prime Minister Trudeau, and, generally, so am I, and with their willingness to amend government legislation, which is what they should so when amendments will make that legislation better. The problem is that until the Senate is elected, until we, the people, have two legitimate voices in Ottawa, it will be subordinate, it will be unable to do do what a good, tough, veteran platoon sergeant does for an eager young lieutenant: provide guidance reflecting other points of view.

But the Senate should not be subordinate; it should not be, exactly, equal, our parliamentary traditions and conventions say otherwise, but the two legislative bodies, the House of Commons, where we are represented in our communities (ridings), and the Senate, where we are represented in our provinces and regions should be collegial, as they are in e.g. Australia, Germany and India, for example. Nothing in our Constitution forbids an elected Senate, but the Supreme Court has cautioned the prime minister that (s)he cannot make major changes without provincial assent (i.e. a constitutional convention); it’s time to move on Senate reform; it’s 2019.

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