Abolition of the Senate? Simplistic but is it wise?


Yesterday and today, our highest court heard arguments on the reform and on the abolition of Canada’s Upper Chamber, the Senate. This all came about because of the Conservative government’s attempt to legislate amendments respecting how senators would be selected and respecting the imposition of term limits (as opposed to age limits). Arguing that Parliament had the power to legislate unilaterally in respect of itself and relying on the shaky premise that the “consultative” elections would not bind the Prime Minister in appointing new members to the Senate, the government proceeded some distance down that path before a number of provincial governments indicated their displeasure with the proposed process, not the least of which was Quebec. Indeed, the Quebec government referred the constitutionality of the bill to its Court of Appeal which, on October 24, 2013, rendered its reasons for judgment: the bill was unconstitutional. In order to carry out the sorts of amendments proposed by the federal government, the federal government will have to involve the provinces. See Renvoi sur un projet de loi federal relative au Senat, 2013 QCCA 1807.

Recent scandals involving individual senators’ expenses has drawn the normally obscure Chamber into the spotlight, and frankly, into disrepute. Shaken by the opposition to its attempts to reform the Senate and embarrassed by the spending habits of some of the relatively newly appointed Conservative senators, the federal government has indicated that, if it cannot proceed with its amendments, it wants to abolish the Senate. “The Senate must change or vanish” said Minister of State for Democratic Reform Pierre Poilievre, “the status quo is not acceptable.”

Since the likely result of this Senate Reference will an opinion that the federal government must obtain the support of 7 provinces having at least 50% of the population in order to reform the Senate, and assuming that at least that minimum requirement will be necessary for the abolition of the Senate, the federal government will be expected to have to do something.  Reform or abolish? Change or vanish? I fear that the temptation will be to simply abolish.

I think that reform will be hard. The reason why it will be hard is that the democratization of the Senate (in other words, the election of the Senators) will mean that the Senate would transition from being a place of “second sober thought” to one of democratic legitimacy. The senators who would have fought for their seats and who would therefore represent their respective provinces would not be willing to simply sit back and let the members of the House of Commons dominate the legislative process. While the basis of their democratic mandate might be different (senators would represent provinces: members of Parliament represent their constituency), in each case, they would have a democratic mandate and would expect (and be expected) to exercise their democratic clout.

If elected then, the distribution of Senate seats takes on new importance. Would it be it appropriate in today’s Canada and with an elected (and therefore effective) Senate, that Ontario and Quebec each get 24 Senate seats but British Columbia and Alberta each get 6? Would there be a logical rationale for the fact that the four Western provinces combined get 24 senate seats but the four Atlantic provinces get 30? Obviously, the current distribution of Senate seats is due to historical developments and the addition of provinces over time resulting in the present distribution. But any province such as British Columbia which is and has been historically underrepresented in the House of Commons and is even more underrepresented in the Senate would be hard pressed to support election of senators without a corresponding rationalization and redistribution of Senate seats. Failure to do so would mean that provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia would be forever subject to the historical decisions based on old and now flawed concepts of the confederation that gave the more populous provinces of Ontario and Quebec the status of separate “regions”. As an “elected” Senate became democratically “effective”, one could expect that the federal government would have to consider the regional interests of Ontario and Quebec first in order to obtain their nearly 50% support in the Upper House. Central Canadian senators would naturally support legislative proposals that would be good for their provinces but British Columbia and Alberta senators would be too few in number to merit consideration.

Any reform involving redistribution of the Senate seats will not be an easy task.  As we all know, many have tried, none have succeeded. Thus, the simple approach, the easy way out may be to simply abolish the Senate. In light of the current public distaste for the Senate, this might be easier to accomplish than reform.  Few provinces, even those who have substantial over-representation in Ottawa by reason of their numerous Senate seats, would have popular support for reform. But popular opinion  does not mean that abolition is the better route. I would argue for a renewed and creative approach to reform.

A federation without a bicameral central legislature is a rarity – and for good reason. In a country as big and as diverse as Canada, it is important to have a mechanism for the regional sensitization of legislative proposals. A properly functioning bicameral legislature will achieve this objective by having one house enact legislation on the basis of simply “majority rule”. The other house, however, will pass a legislative proposal on the basis of a majority of regions or provinces (or states, as the case may be).  This is, after all, the essence of a federal legislature.

Unfortunately, we have not had an effective and properly functioning Upper Chamber doing more than providing “sober second thought”. There has not been the sort of regional input into central legislative decision-making that would make federal legislation better, more inclusive and more in tune with regional issues. We have seen examples of this: Alberta should remember how the National Energy Policy was imposed by a government, a House of Commons and a Senate dominated by Central Canadian interests. I would wager that a Senate that was elected, effective and properly regionally distributed would have required a different sort of national energy policy than the one that was introduced in the early 1980’s.

Accordingly, if, as I suspect will be the case, the Supreme Court of Canada determines that the proposed amendments constitutionally require the participation of the provinces for both reform and for abolition (and for the latter, probably the participation and consent of all of the provinces), I would urge Canadians and the Canadian and provincial governments to roll up their sleeves and get down to determining a principled way of reforming the Senate so that it becomes a democratic and effective component of our federal Parliament and not the subject of derision because of its impotence and its irrelevance in the eyes of most citizens.

In the end, I agree with Minister Poilievre — in part. I agree that “the status quo is not acceptable”. I agree that the Senate must change. I disagree that it should simply vanish.  Simply because it would be really, really hard to reform does not justify abolition. I think we owe it to all Canadians to keep on trying until we get it right.

3 thoughts on “Abolition of the Senate? Simplistic but is it wise?

  1. Thank you for your insightful perspective on the Senate issue. I agree that the Senate should not be abolished, however changes need to be made. Even if changes are difficult to implement is not a reason to even consider abolition of this Canadian institution. Additionally, the Senate ‘Scandal’ has many layers; just because there were a number inappropriate charges by some of the Senators, does not imply that the institution the operate within is flawed and is to blame. While I believe there are many aspects of our political system that need a face lift, the abolition of an institution that is intended to represent the various regions across Canada is an important and necessary part of our constitutional fabric.

    • Thank you, Blair, for your comment. In future posts, I hope to outline some ideas that may present options for breaking the deadlock that Canadians have faced when trying to reform the Upper House. I would welcome your input as well.

  2. Pingback: “Stop! In the name of love (or the Constitution)” – The Supremes Block the Government’s Plans for Senate Reform | Constitutionally Canadian

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