The Canadian Senate: Relaxation Without Representation
Dire reform is needed for public accountability
11 Mar, 2013 5:24
Patrick Brazeau is in the news once again, but this time it isn’t because he lost a charity boxing match. Brazeau, a Canadian senator, has gotten himself into the limelight by recently getting arrested on charges of assault and sexual assault. However, while Brazeau got expelled from the Conservative caucus, he appallingly remains a payrolled senator. It’s disgraceful that, while Brazeau has been barred from attending the Senate until the end of his trial, he is expected to come to the chamber only once a session – if only so he can keep getting paid.
Other senators have also been in hot water for shadowy finances, misusing public funds, embezzlement, and extremely low attendance records. The real issue however, lies with the Canadian Senate at large. For years, the Senate as an institution has been under scrutiny, with parties and groups calling for its outright abolition or major reforms to its selection method. Ultimately, while the Senate is an important institution with an important role, I too would rather see it abolished outright unless the selection method is reformed from its tax-wasting status.
Currently, the Senate lacks legitimacy in the public eye. Being labeled as an “Old Boys Club” of political parties, it cannot fulfill its true role with a selection process dating back to feudal times. Currently, senators are appointed by the Governor General of Canada on the advice of the Prime Minister and, once appointed, can stay on as a Senator until the post-retirement age of seventy-five. The current scandals encompassing the Chamber demonstrate that the money we spend in our taxes can be used far more effectively. Given this low level of public accountability, the chamber is currently a waste of taxpayer funds that can be used to support other institutions in need of funding.
To understand Senate reform, one must understand the structure of the Canadian Parliament. Parliament is broken down into the representative terms of: the Monarch (the King/Queen), the Aristocracy (the Senate) and the Commons (the House of Commons). The Confederate debates exhibit that the Senate’s original purpose was to be similar in principle to the British House of Lords, a Chamber higher than the House of Commons whose purpose was to protect the wealthy in each region. Its purpose has since changed to edit legislation from the House of Commons and provide final approval for proposed bills. This “chamber of sober second thought,” as it is has often been called, has modernized in its role but has remained feudal in its selection. The criticism began recently when the Canadian Senate started to block bills coming from the House of Commons, stating, rightly so, that it is wrong for an unelected institution to block or rubberstamp legislation coming out of an elected body.
Reforming the Senate is not easy; there are a variety of conflicting opinions concerning the most effective course of action. It would require a formal constitutional amendment, a messy process that would involve other partisan agendas, interest groups, and provincial bickering. So the problem arises of how to reform the Senate, an institution that many Canadians have lost faith in.
The current government’s approach is the most reasonable reform. The Harper Government has proposed to conduct consultative elections while having senators serve 8-year terms rather than being safe in the Red Chamber until they are 75. However, critics charge that a constitutional amendment must be made before considering the new proposal. While this would be a matter for the courts to decide on, this is an approach we should support. Rather than consulting partisan staff in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Prime Minister must consult the public before making an appointment. After all, we are the ones paying for the Senate. The constitutional process would remain virtually unchanged; the Governor General would still appoint members to the Senate based on the Prime Minister’s recommendation, but that recommendation would be based on a public election rather than politically biased staff.
Those who support the status quo claim that an elected Senate may make it more powerful than the House of Commons. However, they forget that it is the Prime Minister that yields the power. Members of Parliament are subject to party line loyalties rather than being independent, something acknowledged by many, including University of Toronto Professor Peter Russell in his book, The Evolution of Canadian Parliamentary Democracy. An elected and independent Senate may serve an institutional check on the Prime Minister and may even constrain the office’s abundance of power. Finally, those who support the current system claim that elections would only politicize the Senate, but fail to realize that the Senate is already politicized enough with former Members of Parliament and previous party presidents now serving as senators. Of the 104 Senate members (one seat is currently vacant), 101 of them are openly affiliated with a political party.
The Senate is an undemocratic political institution that is in turn, unaccountable to the people of Canada. For the Senate to have any relevance in our eyes it must first acquire legitimacy. Its selection method must be reformed to what the current government is proposing. Consultative elections will give the people a say on who they would like to see in the Senate without going through a messy constitutional accord. Patrick Brazeau’s case proves that senators are virtually untouchable from the time they are appointed to the age of seventy-five. Since the Senate’s role has transformed from its feudal purposes, it is about time that its selection method modernize as well.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.