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Lysiane Gagnon

A Senate still searching for sober second thought Add to ...

In an ideal world, Senate reform – an idea much talked about these days, albeit mostly within the narrow confines of the political class – should follow a clear model.

Either the Senate is, as it theoretically was supposed to be, a truly informed chamber of “sober second thought,” where enlightened citizens from various walks of life, their appointments based on merit, would study legislation without being encumbered by partisan considerations, or the Senate is a representative body comprised of elected “delegates” from the provinces and territories.

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The latter model would be redundant in Canada. Why have a chamber representative of the regions when we already have 10 strong provinces and three territories?

Of course, the United States also has powerful states, but the U.S. Senate was founded in another era. Initially appointed by the state legislatures, senators would “restrain, if possible, the fury of democracy” by curbing the power of the House of Representatives. Since the Senate was not a truly representative body, all states – no matter their size or population – were given two senators.

The Canadian Senate never lived up to its promise as a chamber of sober second thought, as it became a haven for political hacks and fundraisers. Some of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s appointments were a disgrace, the worst being that of Jacques Demers, a former Quebec hockey coach who, by his own admission, was illiterate. The appointment of Patrick Brazeau, now charged with assault and sexual assault, was another mistake.

Throughout the years, though, some well-advised appointments were made, enabling the Senate to fulfill a useful role. Some of its studies, like the recent one on price gaps between the United States and Canada, are an important contribution to public debate.

Mr. Harper still dreams of a smaller, reformed Senate that would see members elected for short terms. He will go on dreaming until the Supreme Court tells him that such a Senate is impossible without amending the Constitution – a prospect that would open a Pandora’s box that Mr. Harper, sensibly, doesn’t want to touch.

In any case, he wouldn’t have the numbers. Quebec would object to having provincially elected senators because they would weaken the power of the Quebec government, and the Atlantic provinces have no interest in reforming an institution in which they are comfortably overrepresented.

And the Senate cannot be abolished without also amending the Constitution.

One wonders why Mr. Harper is still so fixated on Senate reform. The Triple-E Senate – equal, elected and effective – was the major demand of the Western provinces at the time of the Reform Party, and it made sense then, since the West was grossly underrepresented in the House of Commons. A Senate in which all the provinces would have had an equal number of senators endowed with the legitimacy of having been elected would have somewhat compensated for the unbalanced distribution of seats in the Commons. But this unfairness has since been largely corrected by Harper government legislation.

So what to do with the Senate? Maybe the way out would be to pack it with outstanding citizens chosen by a non-partisan committee of, say, university presidents, Order of Canada officers, Supreme Court judges and retired leaders from labour unions, businesses and aboriginal groups. Maybe then – just maybe – the Senate could gradually be transformed into a real chamber of sober second thought.

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