The federal government’s pending bill on Senate reform, permitting the elections of senators, is a good proposal that would go far to restore the Senate’s reputation, damaged by the recent expenses scandal. On Wednesday, Pierre Poilièvre, the Minister of State for Democratic Reform, unveiled the government’s factum for a reference question to the Supreme Court, which, however, goes further than it needs to, by raising the question of how the Senate could be abolished.
An elected, or partly elected, Senate would give greater articulation in Ottawa to provincial and regional concerns, as was intended in 1867. The Senate already provides a degree of what Sir John A. Macdonald called “sober second thought,” and its committee work is often better and less partisan than that of the House of Commons.
Five Albertan senators have already been appointed after being elected in conjunction with provincial elections, the first in 1990. In essence, the federal government has in these instances delegated its power to appoint senators to the voters of one province. Bill C-7 would give greater formality to this arrangement, and also includes term limits – similarly, a method by which the federal government would choose to limit its own powers.
In 1965, the federal Parliament enacted an age limit of 75 for senators, which was not challenged by any provincial government, and was upheld by the Supreme Court.
Mr. Poilièvre said, “The Senate must either be reformed or, like its provincial counterparts, it must be abolished.” But wholesale abolition of the Senate is a distraction. It is already clear that the legislatures of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have at least half the population of all the provinces would have to approve it.
Quebec’s government does not want to attenuate its own representation of the people of Quebec, by consenting to senators who would carry greater democratic legitimacy. But Bill C-7 would not force any province to opt into senatorial elections. It should pass muster with the Supreme Court and should be passed by Parliament.