Everyone seems to be interested in Senate reform these days except one important body: the Senate itself. The body has become irrelevant to the lives of many Canadians. Many see it as an embarrassment or worse.
I must admit that in the debate over whether the Senate should “reform or die,” I am on the fence. In my mind, the Senate has played a valuable role in our system of government as a chamber of sober second thought. However, it has demonstrated an inability to modernize itself and to deal effectively with abuses of power. It’s now dangerously close to doing more harm than good to our democracy.
The Senate needs to earn the trust and respect of Canadians or it risks making the case for its own abolition. But this doesn’t require constitutional amendment or a reference to the Supreme Court to accomplish – these reforms are wholly within the power of the Senate itself, if it has the will. Here are three reforms the Senate could enact tomorrow, if it had the will.
First, the Senate could actually define and enforce the residency requirements for qualification for appointment. The Constitution requires that senators be resident in the province for which they are appointed. It also empowers the Senate to determine all issues of qualification, including residency. The Senate has never done so because it always operated as gentleman’s club, taking members at their word. The Senate is long overdue to realize that the “trust us” era of politics has passed.
After 146 years, surely the time has come for the Senate to define what residency requires. Residency requirements for our children to play hockey, soccer or baseball are enforced more stringently. Parents of children playing competitive soccer in Ontario are familiar with the card check that begins every game. To be eligible to play Little League baseball in Canada, each child most produce three documents attesting to residency. To demonstrate one’s eligibility as a senator, exactly zero documents are required.
Second, the Senate must demonstrate to Canadians that its members are wholly committed to their jobs. Senators earn an annual salary of $135,200 and those who hold leadership positions earn bonuses on top of this. To most Canadians, this is a lot of money for work that isn’t terribly demanding: In 2012, the Senate sat for 91 days. Recent stories in the media have revealed that a considerable number of senators (and MPs) earn a significant amount of outside income. Such “moonlighting” should either be banned outright or severely restricted to not more than one day a week or its equivalent.
Third, if it wants Canadians to take seriously its role as a chamber of sober second thought, the Senate must move to reduce partisanship. It could do this in a number of ways – the most dramatic would be to require all senators to sever all ties with political parties. This was suggested by a student and probably reflects the thought of many Canadians. While many (especially those in the Conservative and Liberal parties) might bristle at this suggestion, it is worth considering, even if not realistic.
The Senate could use some advice from Brad Pitt, star of the movie Moneyball, which chronicles how the small-payroll Oakland A’s broke with baseball’s conventional wisdom to build a winning team. We should ask the Moneyball question about the Senate: If we weren’t doing things the way we are, how should we be doing them? If we wanted to create an independent body of “sober second thought” that was not tethered to the passions of politics of the day, certainly we would liberate these senators completely from partisan politics (whether they like it or not).
As a fallback position, the Senate should prohibit its members from holding any official position with a political party or related entity (such as its fundraising arm), participating in an electoral campaign or engaging in any fundraising activity on behalf of a political party. Both the Conservative and the Liberal parties have used the Senate as a convenient perch for chief fundraisers, campaign chairs and party activists. That should end.
If the Senate doesn’t get serious about reforming itself, it won’t deserve to be kept alive on expensive life support. Everyone will turn to the big question before the Supreme Court: What will it take to abolish an entity that has made itself irrelevant and embarrassing to Canadian democracy?
Adam Dodek teaches at the University of Ottawa’s law faculty. He is the author of The Canadian Constitution.