Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Let's abolish the senate

Canada, like many democracies, has a bicameral system.  However, unlike most of those other democracies, only one of the houses, the House of Commons, contains members democratically elected by the citizens of this country.  The Senate is populated by political appointees, appointed by the Governor General from a list carefully selected by the prime minister of the day to meet very specific criteria. Unfortunately for the people of Canada, the selection criteria is most often based on how closely the appointees will cling to the party line (as defined by the PM).

I'm currently vacillating between my desire to see the Senate reformed or abolished.  Arguments for keeping the Senate are that, should the Commons attempt something completely batshit crazy, say, passing a bill that blatantly attacks organised labour for no good reason, the Senate is there to offer some sober second thought, and then offer a moderating voice, by proposing amendments that make a mockery of the bill.  What usually happens, however, depends on whether the prime minister's party has a majority in the Senate.  If it does, then the Senate is usually just a rubber stamp for whatever just got hammered through the Commons.  If the opposition has a majority in the Senate, then the Senate will obstruct or slow down legislation just enough to be annoying, but not enough to give the PM justification in wiping them out (although the PM could simply appoint enough Senators to guarantee that a bill will pass, as Brian Mulroney did for the GST). 

What we really find is that the 'sober second thought' that is supposed to be the responsibility of the Senate is actually happening in the courts, as they compare new (and old) legislation to the Constitution and the Charter of Rights.  So on this basis, we could probably do away with 105 unelected politicians, and their staffs, and their perks, and their travel budgets, and so on.

But then who will be left to stand up to the PMO?  In this country, there is a ridiculous amount of power concentrated in the Prime Minister's Office.  If the Prime Minister has a majority in the House of Commons, he can act more or less by fiat, stifling debate, and hammering through an agenda that may bear no relation to his platform in the last election.  The PM could, for example, arbitrarily gut environmental legislation, dump responsibilities to another level of government, push through omnibus bills that effectively re-write massive amounts of legislation, and use his power in the Commons to ensure that the potential effects of the legislation are not even considered.  The Senate, provided it is not simply the Prime Minister's lapdog, has the ability to moderate legislation, and potentially save time in the courts (by ensuring the legislation is sound) or more legislative time by catching impacts of new legislation on existing laws.

In my opinion, senators should not be affiliated with political parties.  This would allow them to review proposed legislation independently of party politics, guided by the direction from the House of Commons, but not blinded by a political agenda.  To do this, power to appoint senators must be taken away from the Prime Minister.  I don't see that senators need necessarily be elected.  A non-partisan selection process could be established, as currently exists for appointments for judges or members of the Order of Canada.  In particular, this would allow an opportunity to ensure representation for groups such as First Nations who might otherwise be underrepresented in parliament.

However, I am realistic enough to acknowlege that only a small minority of Canadians would agree to a change to the selection process that does not involve elections of some sort.  And that means a partisan process, as the political parties compete to see who gets their snout into the trough, regardless of how the elections are scheduled.  I see an elected Senate being just a minor variation on the existing House of Commons, providing no serious 'sober second thought' (even less than currently occurs) but more opportunity for meaningless political grandstanding.

So, I guess I'm for reform if it is meaningful and results in a better system for Canadians, and for abolition otherwise.

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