Jeffrey Simpson

Why would we want an elected Senate?

The Globe and Mail

The Senate chamber in Ottawa. (Dave Chan For The Globe and Mail)

Organizers of dinner parties, beware! The chances are admittedly extremely slim, but a few people still read the news, so one of your guests might conceivably raise the two dullest subjects in Canada: the Clarity Act and Senate reform.

No one with a hint of social grace would dare ruin a party with talk of either subject, but you can never be completely sure. “Constitutionalitis” is a Canadian disease whose principal symptom of extreme boredom has anesthetized more Canadians than any subject since the War of 1812.

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Senate reform has been one of constitutionalitis’s most enduring strains. Vast shelves of books and studies with remedies for the Canadian Senate are found in every library. Episodically, some politician or academic with nothing better to do blows off the dust and proclaims a lasting remedy for the ailments caused by the existing Senate.

These episodes generally accompany the latest outrage or stupidity by one or more members of the Red Chamber or the nomination by a sitting prime minister of a clutch of bagmen, defeated candidates, journalistic shills, personal friends, party staffers or representatives of some ethnic group the prime minister wishes to impress.

And then, responding to overwhelming public disinterest, the episodic urge to do something passes, and the Senate rolls on, unreformed and unrepentant. Expect Stephen Harper’s government, reflecting its Reform Party roots, to keep constitutionalitis alive by insisting taht it must be reformed, without being clear on why, how or when. Blocked at every political turn, the government has tossed a series of Senate reform questions to the Supreme Court.

What the government seems to want is an elected Senate, which sounds very democratic and worthy – until the details are examined.

An elected Senate would be powerful, because being elected would make senators somebodies. An empowered Senate must inevitably lead to discussion of how many seats per province. Dreamers talk of a U.S.-style Senate, with the same number of seats per province.

Can anyone explain to Ontario or Quebec, let alone to Alberta, why New Brunswick should have the same number of senators as those provinces? A more sure-fire recipe for time-wasting has never been invented.

The Supreme Court has already ruled that the composition of the Senate cannot be changed without provincial consent, which in the real world means no agreement, ever.

Not content with the impossible, the Harper government suggests the improbable: that reform can occur if provinces set up elections for senators, as happened in the United States. But how many premiers, eager to speak for their provinces, will want elected senators vying with them for legitimacy as provincial spokesmen? Yes, this is how an elected Senate came to the United States: Oregon elected senators, and the others eventually followed.

Watching the dysfunctional U.S. political system, however, should give advocates of an elected Senate pause. Do we really want a powerful second chamber capable of thwarting the will of the House of Commons? If so, then advocates had better spell out, which they seldom do, how to reconcile the two chambers when they disagree, as they often will.

Constitutionalitis is like that: airy thoughts of change unconnected with the reality of how changes would actually work. Put another way, change one part of the federal system – the Senate – and the effect will be felt in the other parts.

Then, of course, there is the politically appealing constitutional dead end: abolish the entire institution. This non-solution is given a regular airing by the New Democrats each time a senator, or a group of them, hits the headlines with allegations of improper conduct, as seen recently with Senator Patrick Brazeau being turfed from the Conservative caucus, over charges of assault and sexual assault, and other senators being accused of claiming living expenses to which they were not entitled.

Abolition would require provincial consent, which would not be forthcoming. Every federation has an upper chamber, most of them more effective and legitimate than the Canadian Senate because representatives are elected or appointed by constituent parts of the federation.

You can argue that these other federations have not collapsed with strong upper chambers. Getting one in Canada would be next to impossible.

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