Point • Counter-point
The Senate has come to be seen as dated by many Canadians. Currently, senators are appointed by the Prime Ministers (past or present), which makes them seem like an appointed nuisance with which the democratically-elected House of Commons has to deal with. Due to the frustration with the Senate, many Canadians support either reforming it or abolishing it. It is in my opinion that the Senate should not be abolished, but instead reformed so it can make important contributions to Canadian democracy by keeping the executive in check and representing Canada’s provinces.
Many Canadians are hesitant to reform the Senate because it might create gridlock between the two houses like in the United States. I would like to point out that all bicameral systems are not the same because they rely upon different rules governing them. In the United States, one fundamental problem is the abuse of the filibuster in their Senate. Any member of Congress can speak for as long as they want and pass it off to fellow party members. Canada can avoid this problem by not having this rule.
The reason why we need the Senate is so it can keep the executive branch in line. The House of Commons clearly fails at this because of extreme party discipline. As the Gomery Commission in 2006 points out, the “concentration of power in the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office] makes it progressively more difficult for counter-balancing forces in Cabinet, in the public service,and in Parliament to modify or to oppose measures advocated by the Prime Minister.”
The Prime Minister can threaten his own Members of Parliament with kicking them out of the party. Independents rarely get elected. The Prime Minister can also reward MPs for their loyalty by giving them cabinet appointments.
The Senate is not a confidence chamber and by making it an elected one it can better challenge legislation from the executive if need be. However, to do this they cannot have loyalties to the Prime Minister for appointing them to the chamber. They also need to have a much stronger mandate. To accomplish both, they need to be elected and the provinces need to set election dates as the senators’ mandates end. Staggered elections will help break party loyalty and will make the senator less loyal to the Prime Minster.
Reforming the Senate will better our democracy. The executive power will be held more accountable with an elected Senate. The rebalancing of our democracy will give smaller provinces a voice in the Senate while maintaining representation by population in our House of Commons. By abolishing the Senate, the PMO will have more power over Canada than ever before and smaller provinces will continue to feel like they have no voice in governance. The rebalancing of our bicameral democracy is needed in Canada, even though it is unlikely to happen.
For 145 years Canada has had a bicameral legislature, made up of both an elected House of Commons and a largely unelected Senate. With this in mind, there has been a push by the Conservative Party of Canada to see our Senate reformed into an elected body. This is a mistake. A better solution, one that has been brought up by the New Democratic Party, is to constitutionally abolish the Senate.
For the sake of simplicity I’m going to put aside any discussion on the constitutional difficulties involved in abolishing the Senate.
Like the British House of Lords, Canada’s Senate has become a haven for patronage under the presumed guise of “sober second thought.” However, without tying a rope around my neck, I’d like to carefully point out how irrelevant thought in the Senate has become — especially in the last ten years.
The Anti-Terrorism Act of 2001, which passed through both chambers and received royal ascent in just over two months, was probably the first instance in my living memory in which the ability of the Senate to be a relevant tool for second thought could be questioned.
Anne McClellan, the Justice Minister at the time, was forced to bring additional changes to the bill because of public pressure. This included changes to the definition of terrorism and an additional sunset clause on some of its more controversial measures dealing with police detention and secret trials.
The point, however, is that the Senate really didn’t need to be involved in any amendments to the bill; the court of public opinion and media criticism did all of the work for it. Similarly, we recently saw a child pornography bill proposed by Justice Minister Vic Toews that was widely ridiculed. So far, the response from the Conservatives has been to amend it.
While of course, relying on public ridicule of poorly thought up bills isn’t always the most effective way to encourage amendments. When compared to the Senate more often than not, I would argue it is at least equally effective.
Simply put, there are just some cases where providing a second thought on proposed legislation doesn’t work. The Conservative’s omnibus crime bill is an example of this. Not even the Senate, with its 150-page summary of the bill, has proven to be effective in providing amendments to this substantially poorly thought out legislation.
Besides the difficulties that would be involved in reforming the Senate, namely what status the Senate would now have within the legislative process in Canada, there really isn’t a need for a body of parliament that is elected only every eight years to look over proposed legislation.
In the age of the Internet, which has included controversial developments like Anonymous and Wikileaks, the value in having additional bodies outside of House of Commons committees for analysing proposed legislation has diminish substantially. As a country we are better off abolishing the Senate.