Ask most people what Canada’s Senate is for, and you’ll hear it’s a place where retired politicians and other well-known persons go to relax, and occasionally approve bills passed in the House of Commons. Few really appreciate why the Upper House of Canadian politics was created as part of the structure of confederation. So they are inclined to shrug off Prime Minister Harper’s plan to transform the Upper House into an elected, equal, and effective (triple-E) Senate.
There were three main reasons for creating the Senate: to represent the regions of Canada, to provide “sober second thought” to House of Commons legislation, and to represent the propertied folk of the nation. As Ken McNaught noted in The Penguin History of Canada, however, the original reasons for its creation gave way to political
“In practice,” McNaught wrote, “the Senate developed more as a convenient means of rewarding faithful party supporters whom it would be inconvenient or indiscreet to appoint to the bench (judiciary) or the cabinet. The result has been that the Canadian Senate has been even less successful than the (British) House of Lords in opposing the full development of democratic politics centred in the Commons.”
At present, the Senate is dominated by Liberal Party appointees. Harper’s government hasn’t been in power long enough to replace many retiring Liberal senators with Tory appointees, but, even though most of his government’s bills have been passed by the Liberal-dominated Senate, Harper still wants to convert it into a chamber that is elected by the people, equal in representation from each province, and effective in protecting regional interests.
In effect, the prime minister wants a Senate similar to the one in the United States, where it is one of the two houses of Congress--and also triple-E.
Some may think the U.S. Senate provides a better check-and-balance to a president’s power than the Canadian Senate does to a prime minister’s power. Well, sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn’t. Veteran U.S. Senator Robert Byrd points out that the American Senate can be denied important information by the president, and also subject to compliant attitudes on presidential policy.
On the Congressional vote permitting the Iraq invasion of 2003, for example, Senator Byrd wrote: “Presidents and their staffs begin to feel they are untouchable—that they can get away with skating over certain lines because they control information, both public and classified. It may be hard for most Americans to believe, but most members of Congress find it difficult to obtain classified information, even when they request it as part of their committee duties.”
In his book The Age of Anxiety, journalist Haynes Johnson claimed that: “Congress too often has failed to protect the people. Members of both political parties gave the president a virtually free hand in implementing new security measures, and turned a blind eye to legitimate concerns about the danger of civil rights abuses arising out of these laws and regulations. A classic example of this political abdication of governmental oversight came in the hasty passage of the Patriot Act—an act hardly any member of Congress read before it became law.”
How, then, could anyone say with any certainty that Canadians would be better served by having a triple-E Senate in Ottawa? What it would likely do is make the Canadian Senate a more expensive Upper House to keep than it is at the present. In the United States, the Senate has been called “the Millionaires’ Club,” and maybe not just because some of its members were wealthy. (I don’t know if Hillary Clinton is a millionaire, but she needed at least $25 million to run for a U.S. Senate seat in New York state.)
With such steep costs to run in races for the U.S. Senate, candidates must spend a lot of time fund-raising, which means less time scrutinizing bills and debating on the floor of the legislature. As well, there is the risk of ignoring ordinary peoples’ concerns in law-making, in favour of satisfying the interests and lobbying demands of wealthy contributors of campaign funds.
In Canada, the Chrétien government greatly limited the political funding by corporations and labour unions to those running for the House of Commons. But what campaign funding limits, if any, would be put in place by a Conservative government for those running for a seat in a triple-E Senate?
“The West Wants In” was the motto for the Reform Party, which became the Canadian Alliance, which then became the Conservative Party of Canada. Now Harper wants equal representation for each province in the Senate, which is now dominated by members from Ontario and Quebec — Canada’s two most populous provinces. A triple-E Senate in Ottawa would mean less influence by central Canada and more influence by the Western and Atlantic provinces, even though they have significantly fewer people than Ontario and Quebec. Would that really be democratic? The premiers of Ontario and Quebec certainly wouldn’t think so.
The Harper government recent bill on Senate reform was passed by the House of Commons but remains stalled in the Senate, so hasn’t yet become law. But we can expect Harper to remain tenacious in his quest for a greatly changed Senate in the future.
No one denies the need for Senate reform, whether to make it truly democratic or scrap it, but Canadians should be wary about supporting an expensive triple-E Senate similar to the American model. We are far from reaching a national consensus on this issue, and, until we collectively agree on how to make the Senate better, we should reject any proposed changes that would make it worse.
(Paul Bobier is a freelance writer in Kitchener, Ontario.)