Four arguments for Senate reform in Canada

February 21, 2010

By Dr. Roger Gibbins
President and CEO
Robert Roach
Director of the West in Canada Project
Canada West Foundation

CALGARY, AB, Feb. 21, 2010/ — It is likely that the Harper government will continue to press forward with its Senate reform agenda when the House of Commons goes back to work in March. Term limits for senators and using provincial Senate election winners as the pool for new Senate appointments have been Stephen Harper’s focus to date.

The problem is that the current Senate reform debate has become far too tactical. Canadians have lost sight of why a reformed Senate makes sense, and what roles and purposes it might fill. Without a new and compelling case for Senate reform, it will be very difficult to mobilize public support. There is no sense as to why this debate is important and no linkage to Canadian concerns about democracy.

There are a lot of dusty old arguments and models kicking around from the ’80s and ’90s, but it’s 2010 and people need to be reminded why this matters.

At present, the Harper government is going ahead with Senate reform without a clearly articulated vision of the destination. Term limits, while important, just don’t capture the imagination of Canadians (most would probably be quite surprised to learn that senators can stick around until they reach age 75).

Why should Canadians care?

Simply referencing the old Triple-E model is also not good enough. “Equal, elected and effective” for what? Why should Canadians care?

Four powerful arguments why Canadians should care spring to mind that need to be fleshed out and vigorously debated:

1)  A reformed Senate could be used to overcome the chronic inability of the House of Commons to reflect the diversity of the Canadian people. Women, visible minorities, aboriginals, small political parties and other minority groups are poorly represented in the current House of Commons. This doesn’t mean that MPs don’t care about these groups, but it is a problem when the country’s main legislative body does not include the same diversity as the population it represents.

Fixing this shortfall can’t be done via appointments to the Senate because this is a form of tokenism. The shortfall must be fixed by way of an electoral process.

Senate refrom is an opportunity to introduce proportional representation to the federal system. It is not a cure for every representational weakness of our governments, but it would go a long way toward making a reformed Senate a more diverse and representative body. This can be done while retaining our traditional first-past-the-post system in the Commons.

2) A reformed Senate could help ensure federal policy is based on a wider variety of input with a premium placed on compromise and consensus among diverse perspectives. Admittedly, this makes for a slower, more complex and generally messier legislative process, but that’s how a healthy democracy works.

3) A reformed Senate could serve as a check on what virtually everyone agrees is the alarming concentration of power in the hands of the prime minister and the central agencies that report to his office. Even in boring old Canada, too much power in the hands of one individual is a bad idea. With an elected Senate hovering over the prime minister’s shoulder, the concentration of power would be greatly dissipated.

4) There is the need to use the Senate to better capture, express and institutionalize Canada’s regional diversity. A properly designed elected Senate could achieve this and help knit the country together.

Senate reforms ultimate goals

We need more debate about the ultimate goals of Senate reform. To this end, a new Canada West Foundation paper coming out in a few weeks examines this issue in more detail.

The goal is to help initiate a broad public debate about how we want ourselves to be governed. If this is not an important enough issue for Canadians to spend some time and energy on, our country is in deep trouble.

Channels: The Calgary Herald, February 21, the Calgary Beacon, February 22, the Prince Rupert Daily News, February 26, the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, February 27, the Halifax Sunday Herald, February 28, the Windsor Star, March 15, 2010

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