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Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Senate Abolition VS. Senate Reform

This week NDP Leader Jack Layton publicly called for a referendum on abolishing the Canadian Senate. Not surprisingly it’s a move that seems to be getting some support from inside the Conservative government.

Calling the upper chamber "outdated and obsolete”, with “…no place in a modern democracy in the 21st century," Layton put out the call for a referendum on the issue.

Layton’s words have some glimmer of truth in them but fixing the problem by throwing the baby out with the bath water seems a bit extreme to say the least.

For years Canadians have come to accept the fact that the Senate is little more than a vestige of a bygone era. A rubber stamp factory for federal legislation and essentially a golden retirement plan for former MPs and party faithful. But is that any reason to abolish it?

Shouldn’t the question revolve around reforming the chamber and making it work rather than doing away with it completely? It’s not like everything in Ottawa would suddenly function better and the sun would rise earlier in the morning if the Senate didn’t exist. When it comes to government dysfunction there’s more than enough blame to go around.

When Harper was elected a couple of years ago a major plank in his platform was Senate reform, not senate destruction. Many people have called for a triple E senate for years (elected, equal and effective). That’s a far cry from abolition. If full senate reform was put in place not only would the problem of a useless Senate go away but the government itself would more effectively meet the needs of all Canadians, not just those in the Ottawa/Quebec corridor.

From the perspective of smaller provinces like Newfoundland and Labrador a triple E senate might solve some of the problems inherent in finding any kind of a voice in Ottawa. Doing away with it would only serve to further strengthen the position of larger provinces by silencing the smaller ones completely.

Elected: An elected Senate (with set terms) means senators would need to go back to the people of their province or territory for a renewed mandate on a regular basis.

This would ensure that they do their job while in Ottawa (reviewing and providing sober second thought to legislation) rather than simply showing up in the chamber when it suits them, as many do now.

Anyone who has seen the kind of flawed legislation coming out of Ottawa on a regular basis lately would be hard pressed to disagree with the need for sober or any other kind of second thought.

Effective: An effective senate means different things to different people, but for me it represents a senate that is non-partisan. A Senate made up of independent members elected by the people of their province or territory without the benefit or liability of party affiliation.

Such a Senate would take party partisanship out of the equation and allow senators to truly represent their constituents, a situation sorely lacking in the House of Commons.

An effective Senate would also be one that is given the power and mandate to amend or even kill legislation if the need is there to do so.

Equal: An equal senate would provide something missing in Canadian politics today, an equal voice for all of the provinces and territories.

A newly designed senate with 5 or 10 representatives from each province or territory, each with a single vote, would ensure that no one region, regardless of population or number of parliament seats, is capable of hijacking the federal agenda for their own benefit.

No doubt there are those who believe this sort of power in the Senate would hamstring legislation and never allow anything to get done. I refuse to buy that argument. A majority of votes in the senate would be achievable as long as the majority of provincial/territorial representatives are in favor of the legislation. This is a far cry from the current system that allows passage of whatever serves to buy the most votes in the larger provinces.

With so few voices in Ottawa, can the smaller regions afford to give up even the largely ineffective ones they have in the Senate today and leave themselves fully at the mercy of MPs from Ontario, Quebec and Alberta?

No matter what the result of a federal referendum, abolition of the Senate requires a constitutional change and the support of the provinces, something that isn’t likely to happen. We’ve all seen how well the provinces agree on even the smallest of matters, but fear not, a referendum, or even talk of one, is not a wasted effort.

There is a silver lining in all of this even if full abolition is unlikely to ever happen.

With a referendum being discussed, and potentially in the offing, the topic of senate reform has suddenly moved from the back burner to the front burner for many Canadians. This may provide an opportunity to begin the process of airing public concerns and potentially moving from an unelected, unequal and ineffective chamber toward the type of elected, equal and effective one that would be the most beneficial for everyone involved.


Anonymous said...

When I heard about Layton's plan I was all for it but this makes a lot of sense. Why should we get rid of the senate when we can actualy make it work like it is supposed to. Good one.

Anonymous said...

When I heard about Layton's plan I was all for it but this makes a lot of sense. Why should we get rid of the senate when we can actualy make it work like it is supposed to. Good one.

Mark P. said...

Best comment on this:

although he agreed reform was needed Don Newman on Politics speaking with Jack Layton said: If you get rid of the regional represenation of the senate then Ontario and Quebec can basically work together and completely control the country. Everyone else might just as well move to Toronto.

How true it is.

Anonymous said...

Hi Mark,

I saw that. Layton didn't have much of an answer either, all he could muster was, "some would argue those provinces already control everything" like that was OK. He went on with it's too hard to reform the senate so let's abolish it. Can you believe he figures if a job is hard to do then you might as well not do it and just give up.

Great guy that Jack! I can see why Harper is backing him on this. Two of a kind I guess.

Anonymous said...

The issue of senate reform is a no go. It would require Quebec's assent to reform the senate, something it will not do if it lessons its power - which it would. Abolishing the senate, however, could happen. Also, this has been NDP/CCF policy for over 60 years. The senate costs $75 000 000 a year. Far to much for a group that does nothing. I would prefer Senate reform, but it is not possible within confederation.