In recent years there has been an ever increasing amount of pressure to either reform, or abolish the senate in Canada. There is no doubt that there are problems with the senate, but is it really necessary to eliminate it completely?
The Canadian senate was put in place specifically to be a check against the main parliamentary government, and was especially useful when one party formed a majority government. It was designed to ensure any laws and legislation that were created by the government would mesh well with already existing laws and Canadian values. Basically, if it was bad for the country, the senate would either reject it entirely or send it back for modification.
Once upon a time, too, you could depend on politicians to have at least some level of respect for the citizens they served, even if it was merely so they would be able to be elected again and continue getting all their perks and benefits. There was actual respect in parliament for the senate, and a touch of fear because of how the senate could block anything the government attempted to do.
But, somewhere in the last five or so decades, things began to change. It became a plum position for party cronies.
Now, the senate has been rocked with a large spending scandal, and has become totally partisan to whichever party is in power. The reason I say ‘partisan to whichever party is in power’ is quite simple…while it is the Governor General who makes appointments to the senate, it is in modern times only those that the Prime Minister recommends that get appointed…and the Prime Minister of Canada is the head of the ruling party.
As an example, Bill C-377 was pushed through by the conservative majority in the senate (when the Progressive Conservative Party had a majority in Parliament) despite several irregularities, such as limiting debate on the bill, and the fact that private members bills are not allowed to cost the Canadian taxpayer any money without a royal recommendation, and Bill C-377 did not have this recommendation. And finally, when the Speaker attempted to prevent debate from being limited on the bill, he was overruled by the conservative majority.
So, now we come to the meat of it…what can be done?
There are many that want to abolish the senate entirely. The perks, the wasteful spending, and the government cronyism all lead to a massive waste of resources that could be used for other things. Another argument that’s often used is that the senate is not elected, therefore it should not be able to stop bills passed by the house of commons, the elected body of the Canadian government. These are attractive reasons for getting rid of the senate entirely, but ultimately abolishing the senate would be the worst mistake Canadians ever made.
Without some kind of check and balance, majority governments would be able to run roughshod over the Canadian parliamentary system. This is superbly demonstrated by what happens when one party not only has majority rule in the House of Commons, but in the Senate as well…they are able to pass bills with impunity and there’s nothing the other parties and people can really do about it.
The Senate needs to be reformed, not abolished. This needs to be done in a manner that takes into account exactly how the senate is being used in modern times…not as a chamber of sober second thought, but as a means to railroad bills, within the rules or not, through. This can be done with two linked, but important steps:
1. Make the senate elected.
Appointing senators is what has allowed it to be abused so badly in the first place. It has created a culture of entitlement that is above even the standard level found in government. By electing our Senators, Canadians can ensure that if someone is doing a poor job and/or not keeping his/her nose clean, they can be punished and removed from their position of power. A four year period between senate elections would more than likely be enough.
2. Make the senate non-partisan.
How do you do this? Very simple. Make it so that anyone who runs for a position of senate cannot have any sort of ties, official or unofficial, to any of the government parties. Independents are the key, because this prevents the parties from having a presence in the senate thus removing the issue of senators voting along party lines.
These two steps would absolutely both be needed to make any sort of senate reform a success. If only step 1 was done, there would always be one party with dominant numbers, more than likely it would be the party that got elected as a majority than not. If only step 2 was done, the lack of limited term would just breed the same sort of entitlement that already exists in the senate.
There are no better options. As it stands, the senate has no real function except as a reward for people who have served the ruling party well. There’s no incentive for senators to rock the boat, to hold the elected government responsible for its actions, attempted or otherwise. It is, at this present time, a waste of space…and while not all senators were implicated in the spending scandal, such things will continue to be a problem into the future.
If any government was serious about reforming the senate, this is what they would do. If they had the best interest of the Canadian people at heart, this is what they would do. However, it is extremely unlikely that it will ever happen…the government has too much to gain by either leaving this as they are and suffer the occasional scandal, or to abolish it entirely to pave the way for tyranny by majority government.
Any sort of meaningful reform, like the two steps I’ve listed, has to be demanded by the Canadian public as a whole, because at the end of the day the politicians have to be reminded that they work for the people, not the other way around.