Editorial Comment

Senate Change

Recently, there has been a publicly perceived spike in the Canadian Senate’s “buffoon-o-meter”, with the list of transgressions so lengthy and well documented in other media sources, they would be redundant to review here. The plus side of this constant flow of embarrassing revelations is it causes the value of the Senate, not to mention the cool $92 million it costs to operate, to reappear in the national conversation.
    Being born and raised in central Alberta, I well remember how enthusiastically I embraced the dream of the Triple E Senate; one that was equal, elected and effective. That was a long time ago, however, and much has changed in the political dynamics of the nation. Whereas Western Canadians felt getting their equal senate would help bring them into the national fold from the political wilderness, we have found that this is not the case.
    Westerners have managed to get our seat at the central Canadian table, without getting their precious EEE senate, thanks to Reform-minded Preston Manning acolyte, Stephen Harper. He has managed to get Western Canadian interests into the forefront of parliament and is actively engaging in attempts at senate reform. He has even requested clarification by the Supreme Court as to how far he can tweak it before requiring a constitutional amendment.
    Being gun-shy of opening old constitutional wounds is understandable given the debacles of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown (failure to reach) Accords. The political wrangling surrounding these initiatives did far more to divide the country than it did to unite us.
    Due to all the recent media scrutiny of the Red Chamber, (I once thought it was called that because of the predominance of Liberals in it, for most of my adult life) I have heard and read a great deal of information and opinions regarding it’s existential value and potential for improvement. As a result, I have come to some conclusions that are vastly different from the gung-ho Triple E Senate position I once held.
    For example, having seen the gridlock in the US bicameral model; created by having two elected houses that both see themselves as equally powerful and legitimately speaking for “the people”, I can appreciate there may be issues with this approach. I also recognize how distasteful it may be for some to have unelected people trying to circumvent elected officials’ decisions as we have with our own senatorial model.
    As an alternative to either approach, one scribe, NP’s Jesse Kline, posited having senate seats voted for using proportional representation (PR), as opposed to parliamentarians’ “first past the post” system. This would give voice to a much wider set of viewpoints, without the more extreme factions ending up holding the balance of power in the government. One need only look at the governance models of Greece and Italy to see the folly of PR elections for a country’s legislative body.
    Though interesting, the idea doesn’t address the 36% who want to dismantle the senate completely. I have spent a week asking people, “When was the last time there was a major political issue facing the nation and the phrase, “Thank God we have the senate to protect us!” went through your head?” I am sure you can guess the unanimous response. I’d even wager the statement is as rare in the average Canadian mind as “Boy, I sure get good value for my tax dollars!”
    Given that the senate’s purpose is to duplicate the committee work of parliamentarians, to provide suggestions on improving legislation passed by the House, it’s a rather squishy mandate. Do we really need a body to over-rule the body we duly elected to lead us? Do we need one hundred million smackers worth of second guessers?
    I’ll admit I’m no constitutional expert. Still, it does occur to me we already have a body that is far better suited to do the job of providing reasoned input into impending legislation than our current senatorial model. Not only is it an elected body to prevent pork-barrel appointments, but contains equal representation from every province and territory. It would have the capacity to speak with great authority for their regions, yet have each member’s perspective recognized as being secondary to the will of parliament. 
The body I am talking about is The Council of the Federation; which is comprised of all the premiers and territorial leaders that govern the country’s regions. This select group of men and, increasingly, women, with their staff, could be the source of possible amendments to improve legislation before it becomes law as our current senate does. After all, every province has an inter-governmental affairs ministry that already scrutinizes federal legislation for how it will impact their jurisdictions.
    One positive aspect to this approach is our provincial leaders, who are much closer to their constituents than their federal counterparts, would have much more influence in parliament. As the political culture currently works, many MP’s view MLA’s with the same slight whiff of disdain that MLA’s hold for municipal politicians. Just look how much time Stephen Harper set aside for the last Premier’s Conference. For those not keeping score, it was exactly zero minutes. To give each province more responsibility in the shaping of national policy and legislation would make the feds more attentive to their provincial and territorial brethren. Hopefully, this would also force our provincial and territorial leaders to become more conscious of having a national perspective.
    One of the best parts of the plan is that the new senatorial body is already in place. No new mechanism need be invented or funded. The money saved by disbanding the current senate would be totally realized.
    Whatever changes are made to the senate, however, the national consensus is that anything is better than the status quo.


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