The case for Senate reform

Recently-tabled legislation would limit terms to eight years and require new senators to be democratically elected

Existing constitutional provisions mean the Prime Minister would still formally appoint any democratically elected senator.
Existing constitutional provisions mean the Prime Minister would still formally appoint any democratically elected senator.

Imagine you’re a graduate student in international relations at Queen’s assessing a recently emerged African democracy.

You learn that while two-thirds of the legislators are elected, there’s a second house, without which no law could be passed or amended, no budget approved or treaty ratified — and that this second chamber is made up of non-elected people.

You ask your professor, “Were these folks in the second house appointed by local provinces or tribal chiefs so as to be a regional and local constraint on the elected house’s power?”

Your professor, with a wry smile, looks you in the eye and says: “These second house folks, with the full and equal power of those in the elected house, well, actually, they’re appointed by the president. As long as they’re over 30 years old, own a little property and have a positive net worth, he can appoint whomever he wants!”

They might as well be talking about our beloved Canada.

Put yourself in the shoes of the recently elected (with loads of help from Queen’s) MP for Kingston and the Islands, Ted Hsu.

Hsu worked hard to get elected. He won a tough campaign in which his party came third nationally.

But when he arrives in Ottawa he finds out the local senator for Kingston-Frontenac-Leeds has the same legislative power he has — even though the Senator wasn’t elected to Ottawa by local voters.

This is undemocratic and this is why I support Senate reform.

The approach put forward by the Government of Canada, which I strongly support, consists of two bills that do two important things.

The first bill limits how long a person can sit in the Senate. Before Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson in the 1960s, Senators could serve until they died. Pearson brought in a law to limit the age of service to 75.

Pearson’s term limit was a step in the right direction, but it still meant that a senator appointed at the age of 32 could serve 43 years. The minimum age for appointment is 30 — surely another anti-democratic, ageist violation.

In any democracy, having an unelected legislator’s position with equal power to that of an elected MP — and for a period equal to 10 parliamentary terms — undermines the entire framework for electing officials. The Canadian government’s proposal that the term be limited to eight years seems far more reasonable.

The second bill brought in by the Conservative government would make it clear that any vacancy, in any province, could be filled by holding a provincial election where Canadian voters would get to choose their own senators.

The Prime Minister, under the existing constitutional provisions, would still appoint the winner of the election so his constitutional power isn’t diminished or changed. And the bill makes it clear that rather than choose a crony or partisan ally, he would be obligated to respect the elected choice of Canadians.

Once one Prime Minister made a series of appointments in this democratic way, it would be impossible for a subsequent Prime Minister to roll back the clock.

Those who argue that this kind of change requires a full constitutional amendment — usually Liberal Party supporters — are either oblivious to, or cleverly obscuring, the reality that there is zero chance of a constitutional agreement to achieve this kind of change. In fact, it’s been tried 19 times since Confederation and has failed each time.

Our NDP friends argue for the Senate’s abolition because it’s profoundly anti-democratic. This is a rational proposal except for one thing: under our Constitution, abolition requires total unanimity of the House of Commons, the Senate and all 10 provincial legislatures. They must all agree to abolition. The chances of that are slim to none.

On three occasions (October, 2007; November, 2008 and March, 2009) I brought a resolution to the Senate floor for a referendum where Canadians could choose to reform the Senate, keep it the same or abolish it.

On the basis of such a Canada-wide vote (wherein the people are being consulted before the backroom negotiations begin, as opposed to after — quite a radical idea!), negotiations between the provinces and Ottawa could begin to be driven by the decision Canadians reach in the ballot box.

That referendum would still be my fallback position should the present legislation fail to pass.

I’ll add that both opposition and government members in the Senate adjourned my motion to keep it from coming to a vote!

Present Senate reform ideas are rational and fair. They deserve every opportunity to be passed and tried before we face the issue of abolition — the likely next stage should the opposition parties coalesce to delay these bills, through whatever procedural tactics are available.

These are legitimate and profoundly democratic initiatives put forward by the Prime Minister to right a clear and unsustainable wrong.

Prime Minister Harper has advocated Senate reform for more than 15 years. It’s a position I took when seeking the national Progressive Conservative leadership in 1998, and it’s one being echoed now as we continue to debate the issue.

Senator Hugh Segal was appointed to the Senate by Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2005 to represent Kingston-Frontenac-Leeds. He is a life-long Red Tory and sits in the
Conservative Caucus.

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