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Senate security waits for the start of Question Period outside the Senate chamber. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Senate security waits for the start of Question Period outside the Senate chamber. (DAVE CHAN FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Matt Hughes

How to solve the Senate problem: Let it die on the vine Add to ...

Whenever anybody proposes abolishing the Senate, we are told that the only method is through an amendment to the Constitution. But any amendment must have the agreement of seven provinces that together encompass at least 50 per cent of the population – and that’s not going to happen.

We’re told that we’re stuck with the Red Chamber, because political horse-trading by statesmen of generations long since turned to dust caused a state of affairs where some provinces to have more than their fair share of senators. And those provinces aren’t going to give up their advantage.

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Once we’ve been told that, we’re supposed to shake our heads at the tricks and traps history lays for us, give up, and walk away.

Yet there may just be another way to get from here to there. It’s maybe a little underhanded – but given the ripe odour of corruption and self-enrichment rising from the east side of the Centre Block lately, perhaps a certain degree of skullduggery is warranted.

Here’s what would have to happen: during the election campaign of 2015, at least one party leader would have to say, “If I am the next prime minister, I will not appoint a single senator. Not one.”

If the public mood in 2015 is anything like today’s, the party whose leader makes that commitment stands a good chance of being returned with a majority. From then on, a process will have been begun that will devolve the Senate into nonexistence.

Senators no longer serve for life. They have to pack it in at 75. As the current crop ages, they’ll vacate their seats, one birthday at a time. Over the four-year term of a PM with a majority, we would see a significant shrinkage.

Come the election of 2019, every party leader would have to state whether or not he or she would revive the practice of rewarding party stalwarts with a place at the diminishing trough. It would be a courageous leader indeed who would answer in the affirmative, or even try to waffle.

Let four more years of no-new-senators go by, and retirement will have thinned the herd even more. Senators still under the age limit, at least the honourable ones, would recognize that swimming against the tide of history will just leave them washed up on the beach. They’d take their pensions and go.

Even the die-hard self-servers would finally get tired of being mocked by columnists, cartoonists, comedians, and the wags down at the local Tim Hortons.

Ten years from now, the Senate would be populated by a mere handful. Unable to achieve a quorum, they would cease to meet. The staff could be pensioned off or bought out, and the whole thing could be mothballed.

Down the road, if future Canadians decided that an upper house would be useful, it can be redesigned and revived. That would require a constitutional amendment, but getting an agreement using the 7/50 amending formula would be a lot easier when working from a cleared field.

Now, there are a couple of flaws in this proposal, and both of them involve the Governor-General. First, it is the GG, not the prime minister, who appoints senators. But the practice is well established that the Crown appoints only on the PM’s advice. And if the prime minister has won a majority on a policy of not creating senators, it would be a singularly daring Governor-General who would act to frustrate the will of the people.

The second flaw is that bills passed by the Commons must also be passed by the Senate before the Governor-General can give the royal assent that transforms a bill into an act of Parliament that can be proclaimed into law. Once the Senate could no longer form a quorum, no bills could be passed.

But, again, it would be a brave Governor-General who would scull against the current of history. Bills would become law. Precedents would be set. And on we would go.

There is a term for the art of getting what you want by doing nothing. It’s called “masterful inactivity.”

It’s an entirely appropriate strategy for doing away with an institution that does all too little and whose members bring shame on themselves – and on all of us for putting up with them.

Matt Hughes is a novelist and former political speechwriter based in British Columbia.

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