Put the Brakes on Senate Reform

Commentary, Government, Joseph Quesnel

Canada needs to finally have a conversation about Senate reform before politicians and interest groups transform the institution without the participation of average citizens. 

The federal government has introduced a bill in the Senate that would formally recognize the Senate changes that the government has been introducing since its first election in 2015. These changes began when the prime minister started appointing only “non-partisan” senators nominated by an arms-length advisory body. This is not to suggest that some of the changes may not be for the good, but the absence of a wider conversation among Canadians about the role of the Senate.  

Allowing political leaders to change the Senate will allow them to design a system that suits their own interests ahead of the common good of all Canadians. This is not how changing a fundamental part of our political system should be done in a democracy. 

It is not enough to say that electing a government that claimed it was committed to Senate reform and modernization means that you agree with all their changes without a trans-partisan discussion. The same could have been argued about electoral reform. 

The government has never answered the question if partisanship is the problem; in fact, it has not even allowed a debate. Their reforms just assumed it. For many, the problem is that the Senate is not an elected body, for others it is that the Senate’s representation is not “equal.” For others, it is both. Partisanship should be on the table, but the government needs to consult much more broadly with the public before moving forward with Senate reform.

In the government’s quest to remove partisanship from the Senate, they have only replaced partisanship with regional caucuses. But is this any better? Is coalescing around regional interests any better?  Factional interests seem to be a part of human nature and are destined to always creep into our political institutions. The authors of the classic Federalist Papers looked at factions as an inherent part of political systems, to be controlled in a way to maximize the good and minimize harm.

It is very debatable if partisanship is gone. A 2017 CBC study found that independent senators appointed by the prime minister voted with the government almost 95 per cent of the time. Though voting with the government is not a crime if the senator is truly aligned with the government’s legislation, one would expect more inherent disagreement in such a large legislative body. In short, calling them non-partisan does not actually make them so. It almost seems better if politicians were clear and transparent about their motives and biases than pretending they are disinterested and independent. The latter is more insidious. 

The system of appointing new senators could be the problem, but we do not yet know since we have not had the debate at all. 

History would tell us that partisanship has resulted in many great senators bringing forward many top-notch studies and good legislation. Granted, the Mike Duffy et al. scandal of several years ago harmed all of the senators’ reputations, but these extreme cases should not be the basis for reforming the system. 

In Canada, discussions about Senate reform are like discussions about the role of the governor-general. People complain when he or she does not do much and is simply acting in a rubber stamp manner, but people also complain when the governor-general does too much.

Opening Senate reform must involve discussions about the role and powers of senators in a renewed system. Once we know what the Senate aims to do in modern Canada, we can decide how we need to change to meet that. Simply treating one issue – say partisanship or them not being elected – as one isolated feature does not deal with the wider issue of what role Canada wants the Senate to play.

Understandably, it seems one thing driving this paralysis is fear over amending the Constitution. Canada has a difficult formula requiring substantial consensus on issues that are inherently divisive. For those old enough to recall, perhaps fear over the Meech Lake Accord debacle or the Charlottetown Accord prevented us from going down that road. But we cannot let that prevent reform. 

The government must put the brakes on more Senate reform and once the pandemic has moved behind us, engage in a discussion with all Canadians, perhaps even involving direct input from the public through a referendum.  

Canadians need to speak up now. 

 

Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org 

Photo by Philippe Beliveau on Unsplash.