Reforming the Senate May Take Abolishing it First

A newly-designed Senate must be waiting in the wings, ready to roll out when the old Senate disappears
July 7, 2013 1:00 pm Last Updated: July 7, 2013 1:02 pm

At a recent community street fair in Vancouver I was encouraged to sign a petition calling for the abolition of the Canadian Senate. As a long-term advocate of Senate reform I can only applaud this initiative, for although abolition and reform are seen as competing options, the most likely path to reform runs through abolition. Let me explain.

There is no question that recent Senate expense scandals have increased the public’s appetite for abolition by broadening and deepening an already pervasive cynicism about all things Senatorial. More importantly, the scandals have transformed discontent with the Senate status quo from a western issue into a truly pan-Canadian issue.

As long as Senate reform was primarily a western Canadian crusade it lacked resonance in the rest of the country. Few were interested in giving even more power to wealthy and pugnacious western Canadians, particularly those living in Alberta. Now, however, the arguments for reform and especially abolition are infused with national moral outrage as the democratic sensibilities of Canadians across the country are engaged. The Senate has moved from being irrelevant to being offensive.

Also, abolition now has an articulate champion. The NDP, always advocates of abolishing an institution in which they lack any representation and which could frustrate an NDP government should one ever be elected, has understandably, if opportunistically, leapt to the head of the abolition parade.

And, we are told, reform would be just too difficult. The premiers will never agree, and privately fear newly empowered Senators who would challenge their authority in speaking for their provinces. Thus the odds of obtaining the unanimous provincial consent required for substantial reforms, and which in turn would require constitutional change, are extremely long.

Moreover, the only existing reform model, the Triple E model first launched in the 1980s when western Canadians were seeking new routes of national influence, is showing its age. As the country’s demographic and economic centre drifts west, the equal representation of western provinces in a more effective Senate could undercut rather than reinforce the West’s new leverage. More fundamentally, a reform movement driven by alienated westerners makes no sense in today’s Canada, much less tomorrow’s Canada.

Hence the argument for abolition; let’s just get rid of this antiquated and embarrassing institution, let’s sweep the deck clean. However, although abolition may seem a simpler path to follow than reform, it is not. Abolition and reform face the same constitutional hurdle; either would require, with the exception of minor reforms, unanimous provincial content. Abolition would not allow us to bypass the difficulties and uncertainties of constitutional change.

Moreover, I would argue that the necessary support for abolition from Canadians and their provincial governments could only be secured if other institutional methods are created to ensure regional representation and a democratic check on a House of Commons too frequently dominated by one party and one leader. The institutions and norms of Canadian parliamentary democracy already concentrate political power to an alarming degree, and it is hard to imagine that Canadians would be enthusiastic about placing even more uncontested power in the hands of the Prime Minister. It would be, should be, a very tough sell.

In short, a successful drive for abolition requires that a newly designed Senate be waiting in the wings, ready to roll out when the old Senate disappears. Canadians should give serious consideration to abolition, but do so in the realization that abolition is not an alternative but rather a stepping stone to reform. The hard work of designing appropriate representative institutions for democracy in the 21st century still needs to be done.

If the movement for abolition grows, Senate reformers should expect abolitionists to come knocking at their door. Hopefully the door will be thrown open enthusiastically.

Troy Media columnist Dr. Roger Gibbins is the former President and CEO of the Canada West Foundation. Courtesy

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