Reform Senate … Don’t Abolish It

Get rid of it: so easy to say, so popular among the shoot-from-the-lip crowd, and so clever a strategy by those who want to govern without actually forming government !

But the Senate SHOULD be retained.  And reformed.

Now that the “hang ’em” mob reaction and excitement related to the spending excesses of a few sleazy-looking Senators has calmed down …at least a bit … we should take a hard look at whether the Senate should indeed be abolished, or reformed.

Bi-cameral Parliament has been around since two distinct Houses were initiated during  the time of Edward III  (1312-1377) in Britain; and not only Canada, but even the U.S. … despite its revolutionary rejection of so much British …  have retained the second chamber, and for good reason.

Not the least of which is to provide a place to question, challenge and even reject decisions of the tyranny of the majority in the House of Commons.

What!

How dare I say that ANYTHING but the majority should rule!!!  To the Tower! Or the guillotine?

Not so fast!  hear me out …and if you REALLY think about it, you should agree there IS indeed a role that could be played by the  Senate … but NOT the one we now have.

A House of Commons, in an ideal political world, should work fine.  But let’s keep it real: our House is not ideal; debate of legislation today is almost meaningless under the whip system;  its committees do not function as a place where ordinary MPs’ views and regional visions can be honestly accommodated or amendments effected; and, there simply is not enough time to do serious studies of serious issues.

And things gets even worse when there is a minority government: with ONLY a House of Commons,  you could actually have very heavy and restrictive LAWS imposed on Canadians by those who were NOT chosen to form government!

Impossible?  Well, it actually happened … in Canada … not very long ago … and ONLY our Senate prevented the travesty from being rammed through.

I’m referring to the issue I wrote about in this blog in April 2010, when a New Brunswick NDP MP introduced a Private Members Bill calling for ALL new Supreme Court Justices to be EXPERTLY bilingual … to hear complex legal arguments even on technical issues and not just use translation services, like they do now.

Not hard to see how that would disqualify MOST Western Canadian lawyers and judges from ever being considered for Supreme court, while giving many  Eastern Ontario,  Quebec and New Brunswick (aha!)  prospects,  where bilingualism is much more prevalent, a  distinct advantage.

The NDP MPs (including BC’s NDP sellouts) were all in favour; so was the Bloc Quebecois and enough Liberals to push the Private Member’s Bill through the Commons, overcoming the Tory minority government … and PASS.

It was indeed, the tyranny of the majority, where those NOT chosen by enough  Canadians to govern,  could actually impose discrimination and second-class status on most of the country.

It would have become law …but for those dinosaurs, those patronage appointees, those pompous privileged partisans …  in the Senate!

The Senate  rejected the proposed law  … and saved the West from yet another permanent, crippling disadvantage at the seat of power in Ottawa.  Every Western Canadian owes the Senate some true gratitude. (Even though many would hate to acknowledge it.)

Clearly, though, the Senate HAS problems … not the least of which is the way its members are chosen: almost always appointed for all the WRONG reasons: a public payoff for party work;  rewards for staff loyalty in office;  just being friends of the right people; and cynical regional political or ethnic vote-getting attempts.

What we need is Senate reform: Yes… triple E … Equal, Elected,  and Effective.

That will not come all at once … because Western Canadians, who are most abused under the current system, don’t have the backbone to take on Central Canada and the Maritimes and DEMAND change to give us FAIR REPRESENTATION in an elected, reformed Senate … or start looking at walking away  (like Quebeckers have done so effectively for decades).

Not just pretend …but actually look at doing it.

Instead of just accepting we will always be  second class in a country that sees us for nothing else but our resources.

An elected Senate really representing the regions, while still providing a second perspective on Bills passed by the Commons, would be really good thing for BC, the West and the country as a democracy.

Abolishing it would just make things even worse for BC and the West.

Harv Oberfeld

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10 Responses to Reform Senate … Don’t Abolish It

  1. Diverdarren says:

    Harvey, its an interesting thought experiment. If the Senate could be reformed independently of all the problems that occur when Canada talks Constitution, what should it look like?

    If Senators have real power to block legislation and were elected by the people , should the election of Senators be during the middle of the Lower House’s term? The election of a Senate could be a check and balance to a government that has lost popularity with the people in the middle of their mandate. The people wouldn’t have to wait till election time to punish the House for their ill deeds.

    If we elected the Senators should the Upper Chamber seats be divided based on population, or should each province get an equal amount of seats (American Style)? This would allow for provincial interests to be recognized at the federal level. Effectively the West ‘s 4 Provinces could gang up and overrule the combined will of Ontario and Quebec. And likewise Ontario/ Quebec + Maritimes could run rough shot over the West.

    Of course this will only just be a thought experiment, the realities of power politics will always muddle the issue. I don’t think you can tweak the country. The regions will never work together because for chance to occur under our system Ontario and Quebec would have to give up some power, but they can’t be forced to because they have a virtual veto.

    Change can only be accomplished if the nation was dissolved and its components allowed to reform as equals, and on terms agreed upon by the people and not the political parties.

    (Response: Interesting suggestions and perspectives. I believe if we put the nation’s mind to achieving justice by the West DEMANDING it … a commission of constitutional experts could find a way to develop an elected Senate and the proper mechanism and timing of elections to establish it. But what we need FIRST is a party in power that DEMANDS a fair deal for BC. h.o)

  2. ron wilton says:

    Doing something with the senate is no doubt a good thing, but first and foremost, the body that needs to be ‘reformed’ now is the house of commons.
    Thanks to harper’s megalomania a very large percentage(90%?) of the elected members are a colossal waste of time, money and effort.

    As Rathgeber has clearly stated, being told what to say, when to say it and how to say it, by 25 year old wet behind the ears , un-elected little male pissants, is not what he went to Ottawa to do.

    I suspect to a lesser degree the other parties are just as erectilely dysfunctional as well.

    Watching my impotent mp sitting trancelike in QP day after day with zero input is not only depressing, it is maddening.

    We should not have to tolerate this highly paid inertia.

  3. DonGar says:

    Now thats keeping it real. Well stated.

    (Response: Thanks. I just wish WE had leaders …and a population ..really willing to take a stand and DEMAND change…not just suggest it from time to time and then go away and let those who benefit from our second rate status get away with it. It would also HELP if we had BC MPs who stood up FOR BC in Ottawa like Quebec and Maritime MPs stand up for their province. h.o)

  4. Scotty on Denman says:

    Yes, the Senate’s had its moments but because it is otherwise an appendage of the partisan Commons, whose Prime Minister appoints Senators to the extent it serves his legislative purposes, with patronage principles that reward (and expect) loyalty and admits excellence only by coincidence, it needs reform. But not so badly that we should expect a Constitutional Amendment for anything like abolishing it. I’m not sure there is any Constitutional issue so important that one or more of the provinces would not dare to introduce some particular demand in return for their requisite approval (the Constitution is truly a living, evolving thing, not cannon–there will likely never be a time when one province or another is completely satisfied and complacent about its relationship with the others in the federation; the maddening paradox is that the formula to affect Amendment is itself the obstacle to achieving it). We should accept abolition is a non-starter.

    Short of abolition, any reform has to be legislated, which of course can be repealed, leaving whatever reform we might get firmly in the political field where we get to suffer as much hay and abuse as is tolerable. One of the biggest debates will be whether each province gets the same number of seats or a number weighted by each province’s population. I my view, rep-by-pop should be restricted to the Commons, where money bills are created (under the principle of no-taxation-without-[popular]representation); it would be redundant to have two rep-by-pop Houses. Moreover, it would not be in keeping with the solemn agreement amongst the federal membership that each of the provinces are equal cosignatories. It could not have been otherwise: PEI, for example, would not have confederated if it could thereafter be bullied by the much larger provinces—it would have joined the USA instead.
    I’ll suggest ten elected Senators for each of ten provinces, yielding a 100-member Senate with room for new provinces (i.e., the three territories). It might just as well be two from each province, as long as it’s equal.

    Fixed election dates are bad in our Westminster parliamentary system: they enable secretive governments and allow lazy Oppositions, both spending their terms lining up trick-shots on the political billiard table, to be executed on the fixed day. Having Senate elections, staggered with Commons elections in an analogous way to the American Congress (whence we misappropriated the fixed-election date idea in the first place) might go a little way to improving political responsiveness by increasing the frequency of voting—yeah, I hear ya, pretty piss poor compromise but, short of repealing fixed-dates, it might help…a little bit…maybe…

    …but wait! Can the Senate fall on a vote of confidence? Undoubtedly a complex Constitutional problem. Jeez, hope it doesn’t need an Amendment.

    There’s a lot of call for proportional representation, especially from losing parties. Personally I reject pro-rep at the legislative level where a tiny party could end up wielding disproportionate influence in a hung parliament. It might be good in the Senate, though, where money bills are not created.

    Finally, should there be seats reserved for First Nations, municipalities or other minorities? After all, from its inception, the Senate served to protect a minority from the ‘tyranny of the majority’, that is, to protect wealth accumulated over a lifetime of enterprise from supposedly compulsive and more numerous offspring who haven’t lived long enough to amass wealth of their own but who sometimes have legitimate claim to that senile booty. But this isn’t ancient Greece or feudal England-France. The Senate is viewed as representative of regions (provinces), not demographic sets. These regions are all sovereign whereas municipalities and FN governments are not, at least not as recognized by the all-powerful provinces.

    Maybe we’ll just end up changing its name and calling it a day but as long as governments keep bring it up to divert attention away from their current transgressions, it’ll serve its purpose.

  5. e.a.f. says:

    Yes reforming the senate would be a very good idea. Of course it shouldn’t be left to the current government. Can’t trust those guys.

    What I would like to see in a new senate:

    each province gets to elect their senators, the winner’s name is sent to the p.m. and then annointed to the position.

    the senator will hold the position for only 10 yrs. Then they are gone. or 8 yrs, whatever works. But their terms are limited.

    their expenses will be monitored, like any public official’s.

    I’d love for the senate to be “neutral” and therefore they do not get to caimpaign, once they are in senate for “their party”. Of course this infringes on their right to free speech, but it would be nice if they were actually a chamber of sober second thought.

    Each province, region be given the same # of senators. Each region would also elect one First Nations senator, from amongst First Nation Peoples. The Metis people ought also to be represented. perhaps the Metis national organization can elect some one.

    Limits on the amount of money the wanna be senators get to spend on their election.

    This system could be implemented as senators retire, die off, whatever, except for the numbers. Soem of the senators should be laid off, just like regular workers so that those regions which have too many, won’t. The election of First Nations Senators would have to be done, but that in the scheme of things would not be an overally difficult task.

    (Response: See! People have lots of good ideas. It could be done…but the real problem is wrenching democracy away from the imperialists who treat us like colonies: the Martimes and Central Canada. We have to stand up for ourselves …and that will take our Premiers to get together and start demanding justice. We sure cant count on our “reps” in the Commons! h.o)

  6. Saskatchewan Senator Pamela Wallin, centre, with Speaker of the Senate, the Hon. Noel Kinsella and his wife at …Former broadcaster Pamela Wallin spoke to Yahoo! Canada News last week, about her job as a senator and about why Canada still needs a senate.

  7. R says:

    When I first read this I thought you said out House in lieu of our House.anyway-
    Avoiding cliches like the plague and don’t use no double negatives. My guess is it you mean don’t through out the baby with the bath water.?in terms of senate being removed

  8. 13 says:

    To tell the truth I was reading your blog Harvey and when you got to the end where the West issues an ultimatum and then ACTS on the ultimatum I drifted away to dream of a seperate west.

    As for a reformed senate it should be elected. No affirmative action. No quotas. No discrimination due to race, color, sex etc. Just a whole bunch of Canadians not one that has a right or privilage that every other Canadian has.

    Make sure that the salaries of all elected officials are in line with the average Canadians wages doing similar private sector work. Contol all public sector pensions. Freeze them untill the private sector catches up.

    (Response: The West has to FORCE Central and Eastern Canada to modernize…and that will NEVER happen by just suggesting or requesting. We need a new deal, a new Senate setup and a new Constitution that reflects the true country…not just Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes’ interests. h.o)

  9. This political culture and the fact that Ontario and Quebec still hold almost two-thirds of our national population are the main reasons why Canada needs an elected second chamber. Virtually all other federal democracies entrench legislative protection for smaller provinces in an upper house. For most of our history, the House of Commons has been dominated both numerically and psychologically by members from the two inner provinces. Legitimate concerns of outer Canadians require equal representation from each province in a reformed upper house.

    (Response: Good points. We don’t need a second chamber that just mirrors the first: the Senate, as in other countries, could better reflect regional realities in such a widespread federation and give smaller provinces a better voice, especially if elected. But when the “Maritimes” get 24 ..PLUS another six for Newfoundland/Labrador for a total of 30 and BC gets only 6 …there’s a terrible inequity. And BC leaders SHOULD be screaming like hell to get that addressed and changed. Neither Ontario or Quebec would EVER tolerate such second-rate status. h.o)

  10. Aaron Nelson says:

    Canada already has one elected House. There would be absolutely no use in having two — especially when the second is meant to address the inherent flaws of the first.

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