Senate Reform For The People, Not The Politicians (June 2011)

Reform of the Canadian Senate is long overdue. A respected, elected second house of Parliament is needed now, more than ever, to ensure that diverse regional concerns are well-articulated and integrated into national action. This is essential if Canada is to deal with critical 21st-century challenges and ensure the presence of a respected Canadian voice in world affairs.

Yet the Conservative government is misleading Canadians into believing that mere tinkering with a Senate structure dating back to the 19th century – establishing nine-year term limits and à la carte elections – is sufficient. The NDP and some provincial premiers, on the other hand, are suggesting that outright abolition of the Senate is even better. Both the government and Official Opposition are conspiring to dumb down a very important debate affecting the fundamental nature of the Canadian federation and our coherence as a nation. The choice between a partially reformed Senate and no Senate is really not a choice at all: Both options lead to an increasingly dysfunctional and discredited Parliament.

Senate reform is too important a component of any serious plan for improving the functioning of Canadian democracy to be left to the legislative fiat of shortsighted politicians. Rather, the people of Canada must be directly engaged in the debate over this vital issue, and must ultimately be consulted through a national referendum.

Due to an insufficient amount of democratic legitimacy in the Senate, our national leaders have increasingly deferred to provincial premiers on matters of national concern in unaccountable federal-provincial negotiations. The national interest is too often equated with the haphazard sum of disparate provincial-government interests, dependent on highly improbable provincial-government co-operation for even the minimum national standards or actions.

The result is a lack of national action on climate change, an increasing patchwork of health-care policies, the absence of a national clean-energy strategy, a crumbling national infrastructure, and a stalemate on pension reform. This ongoing drift toward national incoherence has not only failed Canadians, but has also led to Canada’s increasing insignificance on the global stage.  Among other things, we are ignored during international climate-change discussions, and are no longer considered worthy of a UN Security Council seat.

We need to re-imagine a more robust elected Senate that provides a valuable counterweight to the purely provincialist perspective voiced by individual premiers in current federal-provincial forums. To this end, we have to consider the role of the Senate in representing regional concerns in a more imaginative and truly democratic way. The Senate is not meant to represent the interests of regional economic and political elites as defined by provincial governments.

Keep in mind that regionalism is not the same as provincialism. Regionalism, at its best, reflects the fact that, in such a large and geographically diverse country as Canada, and with such a highly uneven population distribution, national policies will only be effective if regional concerns are acceptably integrated into a workable national framework. And this process will only find success if it is carried out in an open, transparent parliamentary forum committed to the best interests of Canada as a whole, and accountable to all Canadians – not just provincial premiers.

To engage Canadians, we must take the Senate-reform debate to the people, and away from the day-to-day operations of Parliament. A non-partisan commission of informed Canadians should be tasked with holding hearings across the country to listen to Canadians, explain the issues at stake, and discuss possible options for reform.

The commission would be mandated to – within a reasonable time frame – come up with a serious reform proposal that involves an elected Senate with a new distribution of seats and new powers. Among other things, in the current Senate, the western provinces are significantly underrepresented, and the Atlantic provinces are significantly overrepresented. A much more acceptable regional equilibrium is required if the Senate is to better represent regional concerns, and to work with the House of Commons to produce feasible national action plans for everything from climate-change strategies to health care, from infrastructure investment to clean energy. Such changes could mean, for example, progress on establishing a Canada-wide carbon price, and on implementing national health-care policies that provide greater consistency in the quality and availability of services across the country.

Any proposal that the commission makes must then be made available for Canadians to vote on in a national referendum. Ratification cannot be left only to the first ministers, since they are able to stifle all possible progress in the national interest by making their support for Senate reform contingent on a myriad of other parochial provincial demands, which is what happened with the infamous Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has made the disingenuous claim that the May 2 election somehow performed the function of a referendum, and that, in that “referendum,” Canadians provided the Conservatives with a strong mandate for their Senate tinkering. Our national representatives need to be reminded that, at all times – whether during, or in between, elections – they govern in trust for the people of Canada. It is their democratic responsibility to engage Canadians in fundamental debates, and they cannot shirk this responsibility for the sake of convenience.