We at Vote Canada have been hearing a lot of talk lately about whether we should abolish the Senate. We didn’t know very much about the subject so we decided to do some research, learn about it and formulate some thoughts on the matter to share with our readers and voters.
The Senate is modeled after the British House of Lords which was originally a much more powerful body. At times, the House of Lords was more powerful then the monarch or House of Commons. While it is now made up mostly of Church of England bishops and life peers (appointed to the peerage for sole the purpose of sitting in the house of Lords) some hereditary peers remain. In the past it was much smaller (around 50 members) and was mostly made up of hereditary peers, i.e., the nobility. When the British parliamentary system was developing the dominant social organisation was feudalism and the nobility held real power and were thus represented in government by the House of Lords.
The House of Lords has no fixed size. The House of Lords can introduce legislation and can delay or force changes on legislation passed by the house of commons. Lords are now appointed by the Queen on advice from the Prime Minister. The House of Lords acts as a check on the House of Commons that is independent from the electoral process.
The Senate In Canada
In Canada, we simply adopted the form and practices of the British state even though there wasn’t a nobility in Canada. The Senate is composed of 105 members who are appointed by the Governor General usually on advice from the Prime Minister. In Canada, the Senate is intended to provide a sober second thought to legislation passed by the House of Commons and it also serves a function of balancing out regional representation although it does this in a rather inconsistent way. For example the Maritimes, Quebec and Ontario each have have the right to 24 senators while British Columbia has only 6. The Senate can introduce legislation and its approval is required to pass legislation. In practice, the Senate rarely blocks legislation, usually less then twice a year.
In recent years, more attention has been paid to the Senate as we look for ways to cut cost in government. As Senators are in essence appointed by the Prime Minister, it is often thought that the ability to appoint senators is being used to reward service or support of a particular political party rather then to ensure that effective individuals are in the Senate. Recently, scandals involving expenses used to support purely political party activities have put this aspect of the Senate under particular attention.
So what should be done? Should we abolish the Senate?
Vote Canada thinks that, at least on the surface, abolishing the Senate is a good idea. The Senate was originally created (as the House of Lords) to represent a segment of society that does not and never existed in Canada. It is also very expensive, it doesn’t really do very much, it represents the people and provinces of Canada in an inconsistent way and more importantly, it is fundamentally undemocratic.
Unfortunately, In order to abolish the Senate, it will require opening up the constitution and that requires the approval of all the provinces. Constitutions are designed to make change very difficult as successful democracies seem to require fundamentally stable institutions. As a result, provincial support will have to be bought with real political capital and the process will eat up an incredible amount of the time and attention of our leaders and there is no guarantee of success. At Vote Canada, we feel that there are many more deserving projects for our rulers to be undertaking. Projects such as fighting climate change, working with aboriginal people to help them be successful within Canada, improving the economy and reducing and reversing environmental damage.
What does Vote Canada recommend?
What we recommend is that we don’t try to abolish the Senate. What we recommend is that we try improve the Senate and make it relevant to Canada and Canadians within the existing constitutional framework. After all, the idea of a group of non-partisan, thoughtful and regionally representative people keeping a careful watch on our politicians is not the worst idea in the world.
First of all, we need to apply independent oversight for expenses. Vote Canada understands that this process is underway as a result of the various scandals. Every organization struggles with managing expenses and it is unreasonable to suggest that this problem is limited to the Senate.
Secondly, because the Prime Minister appoints senators, we can change the appointment process with a simple agreement between the major political parties. No constitutional change is required but Canadians will have to apply pressure to make sure that this agreement is never broken.
Thirdly, The Senate can play a stronger role of balancing power so that Canada is not completely dominated by the larger provinces such as Ontario and Quebec. Appoint Senators from each province and territory in numbers that address to some degree this regional concentration of power. Appoint higher per-capita Senator representation in the regions relative to the larger provinces.
Fourthly, Senators should be the best of the best from each region and it should be a genuine honour to serve. Senators should be selected by a process in each province that ensures represntatives of the highest quality who also represent the society from which they come. In New Brunswick for example there should be 60% or so anglophones and 40% or so francophones.
So the question to be voted on is:
a) Abolish the senate?
b) Modify the senate as per described?
c) Leave it as is?
Please go to the “Vote on this Question” box in the upper right hand column to vote.See the voting results on this blog question.
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