Monday, March 06, 2006

Sober Second Thought

While he may soon be overshadowed by his brother, Dalton McGuinty made a bit of news last week calling for the abolishment of the Senate. Personally, I've had about a dozen different opinions on what to do with the Senate over the years but since it will probably never be reformed in a serious way, I've come to accept it as one of life's minor annoyances, much like United Furniture Warehouse Commercials. Also, since I'm a Liberal, I'm hoping to one day be appointed, so I'm fine keeping the Upper Chamber alive.

When it comes to the Senate, everyone has a solution and everyone's solution is usually based on how they see the role of the Senate. Most people fall into one of three categories:

1. The All Powerful Senate: "The Senate should be instrumental in providing a check on Parliament."

2. The Spell Check Senate: "The Senate does a lot of valuable work in committees and refines a lot of bills"

3. The Appendix Senate: "The Senate is useless. It's where old white Liberals go to die."

If you fall into category three, you probably think it should be abolished. And I can sympathize with this group. The Senate is an antiquated and, to be honest, somewhat embarrassing institution so I wouldn't shed any tears over it's demise. And besides, there are still enough other patronage gigs I'm sure I could snare down the line (I hear Denmark is lovely in the spring...).

That said, I don't think the Senate is completely useless. While the House of Commons doesn't need a check, but the Senate does serve a role in revising bills and they do contribute a lot to government through committees. Senators have published a lot of really good policy reports over the years (most of which have been ignored). If there was a way to change the composition of the Senate, I'd have no problem with it's existence. One "As Prime Minister" essay I read a while back suggested selecting Senators from the leaders in their fields. So, you'd have Senators from education, law, the arts, sport, trades, etc. While the idea screams "class warfare" a little too much for my liking, it's intriguing. My all-time favourite idea is of a "lottery Senate" where you'd pick average Canadians to be your Senators, similar to how jurors are selected. That way you'd ensure a fair representation of all demographics and backgrounds. We saw the Citizen's Assembly work well in BC and I don't see any reason this idea couldn't.

Finally, this brings us to Harper's plan of elected Senators and, I must say, I don't like it. Electing Senators gives the Senate more legitimacy, while at the same time keeping the regional inequities in place. An elected Senate would also see fewer females, minorities, and people from diverse backgrounds, instead giving us a carbon copy of the House of Commons.

Unless a Prime Minister is willing to open up the constitution and make wholesale changes, a few tweaks to the Senate will only create more problems than they solve.

(Thus concludes an entire post on Senate reform, without a single Michael Fortier joke. I think I deserve some sort of prize for that.)

27 Comments:

  • I thought I was alone in wanting a lottery system for the senate. It would be democratic and without all the political posturing that goes on in the H of C. Limit the terms to 1 session and I think it would be perfect.

    By Anonymous J. Dawson, at 2:29 PM  

  • Our esteemed friends to the south of us have to suffer through an elected senate. The problem is there is no fiscal disipline in the U.S. senate. It is pork barrel politics at it's worst. The Iraq war is not the only drain on the U.S. budjet.

    http://centreofcanada.blogspot.com/

    By Blogger Don, at 2:36 PM  

  • I've recently been introduced to a line of thought on the Senate that wasn't apparent to me before. The argument is that democracies can and do become reactionary, and that a reactionary democracy can vote itself into dictatorship. In order to ensure that doesn't happen, you have to have something un-democratic to stop it.

    Because the Senate is appointed by the Prime Minister (slowly), and because the Senate exists by the constitution, which can be amended (slowly), absolute democratic control remains, but the Senate will significantly slow reactionary, anti-democratic moves in the House of Commons should they arise.

    It's maybe hard for my generation to imagine a democracy that would vote its executive powers that removed any semblance of democracy from the state. It's not that hard for our parents, and their parents. And even then, there is the "it could never happen to us" argument. Particularly because we have such a representative electoral method, and none of our political parties ever represent regional or minority interests, right?

    By Blogger Gauntlet, at 2:40 PM  

  • Gauntlet:

    It's not hard to imagine at all. We're watching it happen in the US day after day.

    But yes, I'm familiar with that line of thinking, even an adherent to it, I just was never really able to articulate it like that. Needless to say, I mistrust the democratic process; while I used to be a populist, I realized upon further study of populist movements that they are often among the most reactionary people around - see Reform party.

    By Blogger Clear Grit, at 2:49 PM  

  • I have never really had a problem with the Senate but I would like to change its composition rather than Reform it.

    I think it should turn into an unwritten tradition that Senators be selected by being the best of the best in their field. Canada's best scientists, writers, businessmen, artists etc. The Senate should represent the best of Canada and the Commons the people of Canada. As well all know what the people want and what they need can sometimes be two different things, a Senate made up of intelligent individuals can provide a good check to a House of Commons made up of the people's representatives.

    By Blogger Kegger, at 2:55 PM  

  • Calgary Grit:
    You decry regional inequities: is your solution to have Alberta with the same number of Senators as Ontario, or the same number of Senators as PEI?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 3:44 PM  

  • Perhaps the dumbest idea that came out the old Reform party was the concept of an "equal senate" in which each province would have the same number of seats. Alberta would end up with almost the exact same number of seats in such a system. Seats would be shifted from BC, Ontario and Quebec to the Altantic Provinces. To have 200 000+ Islanders have the same representation as 11 000 000 Ontarians is just absurd. There are at least 5 cities in Ontario that have bigger populations that some provinces. The City of Toronto has a population larger than 6 provinces.

    Personally, I agree with McGuinty, the senate is useless, get ride of it, and give ALL province representation equal to their population. Ontario really should have about 20 more MP, Alberta should have about 3 more MP.

    If someone tries to force all provinces to have an equal number of senators I would urge Ontario split into 50 provinces. I wouldn’t mind running for Premier of Southwestern Mississauga.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:07 PM  

  • The problem with a lottery senate - apart from far-fetchedness - is that you lose the "spellcheck" benefits of the existing system. I'm against major senate reform because the likely alternatives - Reform-style attempts to inflict a government-deadlocking sheet anchor on Federal legislation, essentially - are so much worse than what we have now.

    With that said, the Senate is currently unpackable due to the constitutional upper limit finally arriving, and thus there is theoretically the imminent possibility of a constitutional crisis which could result in the senate being swept away constitutionally. (And no doubt replaced by something worse.)

    By Anonymous Jason Townsend, at 4:13 PM  

  • Anon1:44pm: No, I wouldn't. That's one of the reasons I'm against a EEE Senate.

    A rep by pop Senate (or something close to that) makes more sense to me than what we have now.


    Gauntlet; Good arguments, and probably the best ones against abolishing the Senate (although it could still be reformed to meet your criteria).

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 4:15 PM  

  • I'm all for a lottery Senate. Obviously you'd need to have exemptions since you can't have people forced to leave their job for 4 years if they don't want to, but at least you'd have good representation of "average Canadians".

    A lot of Senators are rookies when they start and they learn the ropes. If Romeo Dallaire can become a politician to give advice on bills, I don't see any reason your average Canadian can't.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:18 PM  

  • Is the lottery supposed to be based on the person's (private) political affiliation? Or do we risk the chance of electing an unrepresentative sample by chance, or people with particular views (Racism? Xenophobia? Radical marxism?) who will use their free no-work senate seat as a soapbox to proselytize?

    Representative democracy is fundamentally about deliberative choice. Juries have their honoured place in our constitutional story, but most lawyers I talk to do not have incredibly high views of their competence as impanelled citizen-servants.

    By Anonymous Jason Townsend, at 4:38 PM  

  • http://conservativehipster.blogspot.com/2006/03/politics-as-usual-strange-bedfellows.html

    Hey CG any thoughts on the reality of this???

    By Anonymous happeningfish, at 5:17 PM  

  • If the Senate is abolished or changed in one of the ways suggested in previous posts, where will party hacks go to die? An emergency measures organization or some such actually useful agency? There has to be someplace or some method to reward the party faithful (doesn't there?).

    By Anonymous richard, at 5:24 PM  

  • While the House of Commons doesn't need a check

    I disagree entirely with you on this. The precise reason that the House of Commons needs a counter check of it's legislation is the fact that the Commons is (in theory) fundamentally populist in nature. What makes the masses happy isn't necessarily Good Policy. (For example, cutting income taxes to 0% would be immensely popular, but wouldn't be good governmental policy)

    That said, I do believe that the Senate reflects a social structure that never really existed in Canada. I don't want a US-style "Senate" {the bungled mess that it is} - but some kind of intelligent restructure would be beneficial. (and not merely how senators are selected, but also the powers of the senate need to be revisited as well)

    By Anonymous Grog, at 5:43 PM  

  • Don't laugh at the Lottery Idea.

    Remember that Athenian Democracy stuff, cradle of the vote, blah, blah, blah?

    Well, in ancient Athens they selected Boule, or their H of C, by Lottery.

    In fact, it didn't matter if you wanted the job or not, you were in if you won the lottery.

    If it was good enough for Socrates...

    By Blogger A Canadian Publius, at 8:33 PM  

  • If it was good enough for Socrates?

    Didn't they also eat lead based candy back then?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:37 PM  

  • They may have eaten lead based candy back then, but it was probably based on ignorance. What would be our excuse, given that the uneducated philandering greaseball Tobin dropping out of the Liberal leadership was seen as a loss????????

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:36 PM  

  • Wasn't it Athenian Democracy based on the Lottery system that lead to the trial and execution of Socrates for corrupting the youth of Athens.

    He did such corrupting things as astronomy and geology, and using logic to solve problems, heaven forbid that. The Athenians were almost as worried about moral corruption as the Conservatives.

    By Blogger Kegger, at 10:19 PM  

  • The senate should be elected by region. And that means 5 regions - BC, Prairies, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada, each with 20 seats, and the Territories with 1 each, for a total of 103.

    Anything less, and it should simply be abolished.

    Albertans are idiots if they think that the Senate should be elected in its current form, or equal by province. That would make for massive imbalance, which would hurt the four Western provinces the most.

    What is going on with these Albertans on the Senate? Has no one in Alberta ever really thought this through? Or is Harper, Klein and Bert Brown just woefully naive and stupid?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:45 AM  

  • Fourth category. People like me who love the Senate and never want it to change.

    By Blogger James Bowie, at 1:10 AM  

  • Re. massive imbalance.

    See US, Germany.

    By Blogger matt, at 1:49 AM  

  • Until the Senate can be eliminated by constitutional reform, it should be used as a house of commons hall-of-fame for the Ed Broadbents and Chuck Strahls of the world. Rather than the golden parachute it is now.

    It might not even take a constitutional amendment to remove it, couldn't they just stop appointing people and leave one guy there to rubber stamp legislation.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:17 AM  

  • Getting rid of the Senate, or having an elected one, would simply tie up resources for the issue of constitutional reform. When introducing my Grade 12 Canadian Studies class to Canada's constitution, the lack of knowledge was no real surprise. Yet, one student suggested keeping the Senate appointed since the country did not need another set of elections.

    Close examination of the old BNA Act shows that Sir John A., et al, believed that the Senate had more power than the "elected" Commons. In 1867, it did. The actual vote was limited to male property holders. Pre-Confederation and early post-Confederation elections were poorly organized with open votes, vote-buying (with booze, hence closing of the bars and no liquor sales on election days for many years) and other forms of corruption. Remember that "Lunatic(k)s, prison inmates and women" fell into the same category. While the Senate may have been a bastion of the elite, in some ways it protected the interests of the disenfranchised, taking "the edge off" and being a place of "sober second thought" as so many history books say. During early Confederation, the Senate was the source of fairly important legislation. Macdonald's confrere, Georges-Etienne Cartier, was a Senator, as was Richard Scott, godfather of the "separate" school system. Two Prime Ministers - Abbott and Bowell, seen as weak PMs, were Senators. Yet, the Senate also blocked legislation on Manitoba Schools (1891) and was responsible for implementation of such dreadful legislation as the Indian Act.

    That was then. If anyone has ruined Senate credibility, it's been the Tories. Harper's most recent appointment is one. Think back to Mulroney's sociopathic appointment of eight Senators to ram GST legislation through in 1990 - enlarging the Senate on approval from the Queen(!) and stacking it in the Tories' favour (one move that cost them MANY votes). Perhaps some citizen involvement via the Commons or the Courts may help.

    David Imrie - dave.imrie@gmail.com

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:10 PM  

  • Let's ask the question: What's the purpose of a Canadian Senate?

    A Senate should cover any major gaps in Canada's governance system left over after we democratically reform the House of Commons (with electoral reform, a stronger role for MPs, more free votes, etc.).

    If there are no such gaps, we should get rid of it. Save the money, or use it to hire some extra MPs elected by proportional representation to a mixed-member Parliament.

    We already have the provincial Premiers and the Council of the Federation to look after provincial interests. There's no need for a provincial-representation chamber. There's certainly no need for a duplicate House of Commons-like Senate (hello, gridlock!).

    We should probably get rid of it.

    By Anonymous Jasper, at 3:10 AM  

  • I'm completely in favour of the lottery system, because it would give a chance to ordinary Canadians (those people that politicians love to talk about but never actuallly do anything for). It would really work towards solving the democratic deficit, instead of giving more powers to a bunch of whining MPs who don't seem to realize they are already in a priviledged position compared with Canadians. I think something like this would fundamentally change how Canadians view politics.
    Don't forget that there are really no criteria for Senators right now, and they don't even have to show up that often.
    As for exceptions, it won't work if there are too many. Think of it like a duty to the country. Other countries have compulsary miilitary service. At any rate, Senators are well compensated, and provisions can be made for various losses, like jury duty. Democracy is about ordinary people people making decisions, not based on perceived ability (experience, degrees, sexual prowess, whatever).

    By Anonymous orangegirl, at 12:02 PM  

  • Orangegirl: what would stop the lottery "ordinaries" from acting like "whining MPs" once they arrived in Ottawa?

    In my view democracy is *not* about ordinary people making decisions. It is about ordinary people having the regular opportunity to hold decision makers individually accountable.

    By Blogger matt, at 3:47 PM  

  • "An elected Senate would also see fewer females, minorities, and people from diverse backgrounds..."

    You mean -gasp- that the average voter wouldn't see the same value that you ascribe to gender and ethnic quotas? Well, either they shouldn't be entitled to vote, or somebody is seriously out of step. Gee, I wonder which it is...

    By Blogger deaner, at 7:57 PM  

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