The dragon roars: a [sort-of-but-not-really] defense of the Canadian Senate

Abolish the Senate? Not so fast…

This week, the ancient dragon awoke from its slumber, letting loose a fiery roar before settling back down to what will probably be another long sleep.

The dragon of which I’m speaking is the Canadian Senate. The ‘roar’ – which successfully charred beyond recognition a regressive and bad bit of anti-union legislation – came as a bit of a surprise, even though unions had lobbied the Senate to reject the bill (people still lobby the Senate, but nobody actually expects anything to come of it these days).

I’m not going to talk about the merits or drawbacks of the legislation itself here; that’s a separate debate entirely. But the broader issue that’s worth reflecting on is the Senate’s role in rejecting the bill. It came as a surprise; a bit of a curiosity, even. But it is, I would argue, the first thing our political system has done ‘right’ in a long, long time. I am not the first one to say it, but for the first time in a long while our political system functioned exactly as it was designed to function.

Cowed into inaction

For years, the relentless attack of opposition politicians (of various parties) have preached that the Senate is redundant, should not exist and therefore as long as it does exist it should not dare to actually do anything. This type of ludicrous argument is, in fact, even worse than it not existing at all. So long as it exists, it ought to do the job for which it was created – debate legislation, and reject it if it is flawed or otherwise clashes with fundamental Canadian values and the principles of our democratic and constitutional system.

Before getting into the arguments for and against the Senate, it’s worthwhile remembering that this is not the first time the Canadian Senate has saved the country from huge mistakes, or contributed to shaping the values we today hold dear as Canadians. It’s the Senate, in fact, that ensured the protection of abortion rights when the Conservatives were in office back in the 1990s. Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservatives tried to pass an abortion law that would have greatly restricted the abortion rights of women in Canada: it was approved by the House of Commons and it was only the fact that the Canadian Senate rejected it that this country enjoys its rights today.

So while it’s important for us to reflect on the Senate’s problems and drawbacks, it’s important to reflect on its achievements, too.

Truth or dare?

Political rhetoric about ‘abolishing the Senate’ really irritates me. Not because the Senate is innately a good thing – it’s not.

The Senate irritates our political sensibilities for several reasons. For one: many of us have an inherent sense of disgust for rich politicians whose salaries come from the public pocket (our taxes) and then don’t actually do a whole lot, beyond sitting around raking in more of our taxpayers’ money.

Fair critique. But it applies to the House of Commons as well.

For others, it irritates us because it’s not democratically elected. We have no say in electing or rejecting the people in office: they’re appointed by the government. It’s not democratic (well, it’s democratic in the same way in which government appointments to cabinet, health boards, regulatory agencies, and other government bodies is democratic; which is to say, not very).

Fair critique as well.

So it’s easy to jump onto an anti-Senate bandwagon because, well, these things rightfully irritate us. But the problem with advocating the abolition of the Senate is that its absence would probably leave us worse off than now.

Back when our parliamentary system was designed in Canada, there was a real hesitation about popular election of legislators. Much of this was elitism: how does the public know the best people to elect? What if they just get riled up by some rabble-rouser, or angry and reactionary because of an unpopular policy, and wind up, you know, making stupid choices in the heat of the moment, by electing people like, you know, Rob Ford?

Now this is an irritating line of thought because it is rather elitist. But there’s an element of truth to it too. What if we do make bad choices with our vote? Saying “Suffer! You’ve elected them, so now let them run rampant with the public treasury and public policy for four years, destroy the country, and learn your lesson, you fool!” is actually not a very intelligent response. If there comes a consensus that the choice we made in an election was a bad choice, or if the people we elect don’t fulfil their commitments to us, it’s only sensible for there to be a corrective method available that doesn’t involve us simply twiddling our thumbs until the next election.

The other problem, of course, is that Canada suffers from one of the most antiquated electoral systems in the modern democratic world.

I don’t think the way to address this is by an appointed Senate, but until we have something better, it serves the purpose for which it was designed – that of a ‘chamber of sober second thought’. Well, when its members show up for work and aren’t just political cronies, that is. They often fail to meet this test. But that’s a problem with the people, not necessarily with the idea.

There is a better solution: some form of a recall mechanism. We don’t have any, for federal politicians. We need one.

The other problem, of course, is that Canada suffers from one of the most antiquated electoral systems in the modern democratic world. Our first-past-the-post system means that it is quite easily possible for a political party that represents only a minority of Canadians to become a majority government. It doesn’t make sense, but it can happen. In fact we’re living through that right now: Stephen Harper’s federal Conservatives were elected by only 39% of the voting public (and probably have the support of even fewer now, after their first two years of policy terror). And it can happen again. If Justin Trudeau’s Liberals and Thomas Mulcair’s NDP successfully split the vote of the remaining majority, it probably will.

In other words, Canadian politics winds up resembling gang warfare more than representative democracy, where the biggest gang holds sway until another gang becomes bigger than that gang.

In the face of such nonsense, the Senate, once again, has the potential to counteract partisan gang warfare. Until relatively recently there were still a majority of non-Conservatives in the Senate. That has since changed, but it’s often the case that the Senate has a different party in the majority than the House of Commons. This makes for a potentially more diverse debate, where the Senate might be able to counteract the effects and efforts of a minority government holding majority power. It will at least require negotiation and compromise – both of which are necessary hallmarks of democracy.

It’s imperfect, but it’s better than the alternative: a minority government running havoc with majority power.

There are other, better ways

Of course, there are other solutions. In fact, many other countries have implemented them successfully, and there’s a range of them to choose from. Some form of proportional representation, where seats are allocated according to percentage of the vote rather than localized races is a much-needed option. Some countries even have systems where districts can have more than one representative. Democracy is a richly varied system, yet Canada is stuck in an age-old rut from which it seems incapable of emerging.

And that is one of the other problems. Senate-bashing has become almost a joke in Canadian politics. Everybody does it, and thus far, nobody has meant it. The Conservatives made it their mantra, and now they’re playing the game as avidly as any previous government did. The Liberals had plenty of opportunity to abolish or reform it as well. The NDP are currently cheerleading for its abolition, and maybe they’ll make it happen. But then what?

We don’t need to abolish the Senate (thus leaving ourselves vulnerable to a total 4-year dictatorship of whatever party holds the House of Commons). Turning it into an elected mirror-copy of the House of Commons won’t achieve much either. What we need is a much broader electoral reform – not just of the Senate, but of the House of Commons as well. In fact, our entire democratic system needs reform: overhauling and clarifying the roles and responsibilities of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, introduction of recall mechanisms, some form of proportional representation. Whatever the solutions we choose, the problems are manifold. It would be irresponsible in the extreme to simply abolish the Senate, without sorting out these other parliamentary problems at the same time.

I want to hear a commitment from any party I vote for…that they’re going to curb their own power once they’re in office by modernizing and overhauling our democratic system.

We don’t need simplistic piece-meal gestures that could very well leave us worse off than where we were before. We need an honest commitment to broad reform.

I don’t want to hear that the NDP – or any party – are planning to abolish the Senate; I want to hear what their plan is for reforming democracy more broadly in Canada. I want to hear a commitment from any party I vote for – and I’ve voted for them all at one point or another – that they’re going to curb their own power once they’re in office by modernizing and overhauling our democratic system.

Abolishing the Senate will mean nothing without broader reform; and if it means anything, it could mean a situation much worse than what we have now. Sure it’s a drain on resources. But the bad anti-union bill it just rejected would, by itself, have cost Canadian taxpayers a whole lot more than the Senate will cost them this year. Leaving the House of Commons under the control of any single party with no check-and-balance, recall mechanism or proportional representation would be far worse than maintaining our existing imperfect system.

So yes. It’s easy to jump on the bandwagon and rant about the elitist Senate. But until we have a commitment – and clear plan – from the political parties for a broad-sweeping democratic reform, let’s not make our democratic deficit problems any worse than they already are.

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