There are generally three views on Senate reform “First, keep our current system. Second, elect our Senators, and realign where Senators come from in the country (equal representation). Third, simply abolish it.” I will add a forth which falls between that previously proposed by the Conservatives and that which at least one province has tried to initiate, that being appointed by the PM from a short list provided by the provinces. I will briefly cover each of these options most of which I have covered extensively in these pages some time ago.
The current system has two major flaws, the lifetime appointment (now resolved?) and the propensity of Prime Ministers in power to make partisan appointments that detract from the 'independence' and objectivity pf the second chamber. One of my correspondents recently had this to say “Out here, we in Western Canada, especially in my home province of Alberta, have been wanting electoral reform for decades. What we'd especially like is to reform the Senate, although the reforms Stephen Harper is proposing are so poorly conceived that most Western academics have been giving them the thumbs down.”In 2006 the Conservative government introduced legislation to limit the terms of Senators to eight years. They also committed to introducing legislation that would require non-binding elections for new Senators. The Prime Minister would then use his/her discretionary powers to appoint the winners of those elections to the Senate. The latter has obviously not happened and Mr Harper has in fact increased the partisan nature of appointees exponentially.
The second option, an elected senate sounds good at first glance but not only would this require constitutional reform and a mechanism to hold such elections but would invariably lead to a similar mix of political affiliation to that of an elected House of Commons, it is the difference between these two bodies (if and when it exists) that enables the debate and 'sober second thought' that makes the Senate such an essential check upon power hungry and authoritative majority governments. As Senator McCoy said in a guest post here some time ago “an independent, appointed Senate could (ironically enough) be Canada's last best hope for democracy. For now, I'll leave you to mull that over … but consider this: if what we need is a group dedicated to public service who can speak truth to power, then we'd best find a way to insulate them from the pernicious influence of rapacious power seekers. A Senate appointed by some means other than the PM would fit the bill quite nicely.”
Another observer said:-
“If candidates for the Senate are aligned to our existing political parties, they will be dependent on those parties for financial and moral support to be nominated, elected and re-elected once their term is up. If they vote on a bill, contrary to their party’s vote in the House of Commons, they risk being ejected from that party and losing all support needed for re-election. We've seen how ruthless the last few PM's have been when a member votes his or her conscience. If you’re not careful, what you end up with is just doubling the number of sitting MP’s/Senators who are under strict control of one Party leader. They just sit in two buildings.”
If that indeed were the case, as it seems to be in its present form, then we may as well abolish the Senate. However that would leave any majority government, no matter what affiliation, with totality unrestricted power to do whatever they please without ANY second look at legislation. Given that even those MPs presenting the bills, let alone all those who must vote upon then, have recently revealed that they have little idea of the details contained therein this is hardly a positive thing.
That brings me to the last possibility where I will simply re-post my proposal from two years ago:-
I offer the following observations in support of this proposal.
1) It avoids the expense and difficulty of requiring a public election each time a senator retires, and the electing of senators during a federal or provincial election which would be even more partisan..
2) It avoids the politicization of a public election campaign and would reflect a variety of political views as represented by the various legislatures involved.
3) It removes as far as possible the partisan choices of the PM of the day from the mix.
4) It ensures that the senators elected are in fact representative of the provinces which they represent and not beholden to the PM of the day or his party.
5) It does not require constitutional change but just an agreement from the Provinces, parliament and the PM (that’s the tough one) to proceed in this manner.
6) A rejection of a candidate as proposed shall be given the full light of day and debated in both the provincial and federal legislatures so that a PM cannot arbitrarily reject a candidate without at least some measure of accountability.
I note that in almost all of previous proposals some form of having all or some of the senators either elected or recommended at the provincial level was included, however non of the proposals was ever adopted perhaps because of other more contentious issues also proposed at the same time. The problem is of course, that any decisions to make the Senate less partisan and more effective must be made by highly partisan MPs, MPP,s and indeed by the senators themselves.
I will leave you with this from Liberal Senator Joseph Day who appeared on Power & Politics , and gave probably the best explanation for the Senate and its role in recent memory:
The House of Commons is a house of politics, and they balance things on politics. They look at all the matters that are before them, what they want to get out, what they want to fight. We look at each piece of legislation, and we’re somewhere between the judiciary – the judges – and the political body, the House of Commons. We have a role to play that is quite different from the House of Commons, and we do our job and they do theirs. I don’t think anybody should think that we are just the other side of the coin of the House of Commons.
If the Senate is to fulfill this 'different role' and examine each piece of legislation with a critical and non partisan eye then we must indeed find a way of returning it to be a non political and independent body not beholden to the PM or any particular political party.
For a comprehensive review of senate reform proposals and constitutional issues surrounding them (and lots of other information on parliament, elections etc etc) see The Maple Leaf Web site