For the past few weeks, proven and alleged wrongdoing by several members of the Canadian Senate has preoccupied the national news media and disgusted Canadians.
But while the media focus on the Senate scandals and what to do with those responsible, the bigger long-term question is what to do with the institution itself – whether to substantially reform it or abolish it altogether.
Why do large federations with unevenly distributed populations – Australia, Germany, the United States, Canada – all have bicameral (two-house) parliaments or congresses? For solid geopolitical, historical and constitutional reasons that are as valid today as they were when these institutions were first established.
As Abraham Lincoln put it in reference to the United States: “The convention that framed the Constitution had this difficulty: The small states wished to so frame the government that they might be equal to the larger ones regardless of the inequality of population; the larger ones insisted on equality in proportion to population. They compromised it, by basing the House of Representatives on population and the Senate on states regardless of population …”
In Canada, of course, the same type of compromise was necessary to get the founding provinces, especially Quebec and Ontario, to agree to Confederation. But because our Senate is unelected and unaccountable to voters and taxpayers, it lacks the democratic legitimacy required to command public support for either its role as a chamber of sober second thought or its potential role as an effective champion of regional and minority interests.
Making the Senate democratically accountable through the direct or indirect election of senators is the one reform that needs to be undertaken before Canadians can fairly judge whether the institution can be made sufficiently worthy and useful to justify retention, rather than abolition.
On the political side, it is ironic that the strongest current advocate of Senate abolition in the federal arena is the Quebec-based NDP. In the long run, no province will need a reformed Senate more than Quebec, and when the federal New Democrats prematurely advocate Senate abolition, they are essentially repeating the same mistake they made in the West two decades ago.
In the 1980s and ’90s, when so-called western alienation was at its peak, championing a reformed Senate to provide more effective representation of western interests was a hot and attractive topic. The Triple-E Senate movement was born out of Calgary, advocating measures to make the Senate elected, equal and effective. Senate reform became a major vote-getting plank in the Reform Party platform, Alberta passed provincial legislation to elect Senate nominees, and Stan Waters became Canada’s first “elected Senator.”
At all-candidate forums in the 1993 and 1997 elections, when western NDP candidates advocated Senate abolition, they were immediately asked: “But how then will western interests be effectively represented in a one-house Parliament where Quebec and Ontario have an absolute majority of seats?” NDP candidates were simply unable to answer this and related questions to the satisfaction of western voters, enabling Reform, not the NDP (despite its historic roots in the West), to become the voice of western alienation and the champion of western regional interests.
Today, with the rapid growth of population in the western provinces and the shift in the country’s political centre of gravity from the old Laurentian region (Quebec and Ontario together) to the new alignment between Ontario and the West, Senate reform is not as high on the western agenda as it once was. It is rather the eastern provinces, especially Quebec, with its population declining in relation to the rest of the country, that will eventually be most in need of parliamentary representation that does not rest solely on population.
In 1840, when the future Quebec and Ontario were joined by the Act of Union, Quebec had 58 per cent of the population of the United Province of Canada. By the time of Confederation in 1867, this proportion had slipped to less than 50 per cent and Sir John A. Macdonald offered equality between Ontario and Quebec in the newly created Senate to offset the dominance “rep by pop” gave to Ontario in the newly created House of Commons.
Today, Quebec’s population is 24 per cent of that of the rest of Canada and likely to decline further in percentage terms as its economy languishes under a minority separatist provincial government. Which is why Senate reform, not abolition, is in Quebec’s long-run interests and the interests of all Canadians who wish to prevent “eastern alienation” from becoming yet another strain on the unity of the country.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy.