We surely have a consensus: The Canadian Senate cannot continue as it is, an affront to principles of democratic, accountable government.
But there is no possibility of effectively reforming the Senate. So the only solution is abolition. The way to make abolition feasible is to seek the advice of Canadians in a national referendum.
Neither minor nor major changes to the Senate will work. Obvious reforms, such as public audits of senators’ expenses, will give us long overdue transparency, but will still leave us with an appointed upper house of our Parliament that is utterly lacking in democratic legitimacy. Think about the next few years: Where will new senators come from? Will any Canadians of real capacity and civic spirit accept appointment to the Red Chamber, with or without new financial controls? The only Canadians who would accept a senatorship are exactly the kind of people we don’t want appointed.
Why not develop a better appointment process? If we could agree on one – not likely – we would still not get consistently good senators. Being drawn from the general public, senators could never command the legitimacy that appointed judges maintain by virtue of their professional legal backgrounds. First-rank former politicians already shun Senate appointments to work in the private sector. Two of the highest-achieving citizens recently appointed to the Senate – to general approval at the time – were, arguably, Pamela Wallin and Mike Duffy. They were thought to be pretty high-quality appointments.
An elected Senate is not in the cards because of the certainty of provincial deadlock about representation. That flag has been run up the mast and gone unsaluted. It also begs the larger question of why we need any kind of upper house at all. Canada has worked for 146 years with a Senate that has been little more than a standing scandal. The provinces are fully empowered to speak for themselves constitutionally; consultants can be hired to review draft legislation soberly at a tiny fraction of the Senate’s current cost. It is an appendix to the Canadian body politic that serves no purpose, is chronically diseased and can be removed without loss.
So how do we do a senatectomy at a time when many experts claim that Canadian constitutional surgery is impossible? To start with, instead of despairing, we learn from the mistakes of the Meech Lake/Charlottetown fiasco, and this time, we get it right.
The key is to consult the Canadian people at the beginning of the process rather than the end. The government of Canada should hold a national referendum on abolition of the Senate. It could coincide with the 2015 election. Depending on the Supreme Court’s views on provincial input into legislating Senate reform, the referendum would require an affirmative vote from either (a) a majority of Canadians; or (b) majorities in each of seven provinces totalling 50 per cent of the population; or (c) majorities in every province.
If the referendum produces a mandate to abolish the Senate, as I think it would, the government of Canada can formulate the necessary constitutional amendment and challenge provincial politicians to accept the will of the people. They would reject it at their peril. Would the government of the 140,000 Prince Edward Islanders oppose the wishes of many millions of Canadians to save four senatorships?
If a referendum to abolish the Senate fails, nothing much would be lost. Success would be a major achievement, and would lead to a truly important change for the better in Canadian parliamentary democracy.
A great Conservative leader, and a good managerial prime minister, Stephen Harper nonetheless has yet to leave a dramatic mark on Canadian history. Much worse, his fumbling of the Senate file, on which he should have been expert, and his inattention to the need truly to raise the bar of Canadian democracy now seriously imperil his government and his reputation.
To bring about a significant improvement in the governance of Canada by excising an out-of-date, useless, wasteful and undemocratic part of our system would be no mean legacy. Given the gangrenous nature of the current Senate scandals, it may also be the only way to save Mr. Harper’s government from continuing shame and ignominy.
Historian and author Michael Bliss holds the rank of university professor emeritus at the University of Toronto.