In 1952, I was fortunate enough to win a debating contest at West Vancouver High – “fortunate” because the prize was a trip to Ottawa to see Parliament. The sponsor was the local MP, James Sinclair, then a powerful politician but now remembered mainly as the father of Margaret Trudeau.
Mr. Sinclair kindly arranged some visits with parliamentarians, most memorably with one of the most important men in Ottawa. Jack Pickersgill was a former backroom fixer for Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King and a newly minted cabinet minister in the Louis St. Laurent government. I was told I could ask the great man one question only, so I gave it my best shot.
“What,” I asked, “is the purpose of the Senate?” I well remember his reply. Pick, as he was universally known, drew himself up to his full height of 5 foot 6 or so and said to me with his nasal twang: “Young man, the Senate is a humane garbage disposal.” More kindly, he went on to explain that cabinet deadwood had to be cleared out for new timber, and a Senate post was a sort of golden parachute.
But there is much more to the Senate than that, as I came to learn over years in politics and especially while researching and writing the report Challenges in Senate Reform in 2004. There have been and are excellent senators. The Red Chamber has tackled so many difficult issues that elected politicians dared not touch – early discussion of marijuana legalization and real reform to medicare, for example.
It has forced elections when prime ministers arguably moved too quickly – as in the case of the 1988 free-trade election. Current abortion law (or lack thereof) is a Senate creation. When John Diefenbaker arbitrarily fired Bank of Canada governor James Coyne, the Senate called the prime minister to account. And Brian Mulroney could only get his reviled Goods and Services Tax through Parliament by stacking the Senate (as the Constitution allowed him to do) with temporary appointments. But it is in committees, caucus and the back rooms where most of the work is done. For better or for worse – mostly for better – the Senate has had a profound if mostly unseen impact on Canadian governance.
This is exactly as the framers of our Constitution intended. They wanted an upper house, common to virtually all federations like Canada, to be influential but not dominant. We do not have in Canada the deadlocks that are so common south of the border, where there are two elected chambers. And the framers wanted an upper house that would be more thoughtful, less partisan and less moved by the popular emotion of the day. They got both those things.
Today many would-be Senate reformers really want to attack two of the evils of our federation, namely insufficient oversight of an all-powerful Prime Minister by the people’s representatives and sometimes inadequate regional representation. They see the Senate as the best and easiest place to achieve these worthy goals, but it is neither.
They have the wrong target. The Senate is effectively impossible to reform properly – i.e., changing the number of seats per province – and merely making it elected would be a disaster. Election would confer democratic legitimacy. And then the overwhelming numerical dominance of Quebec and the Atlantic provinces would turn the Senate into a one-way conveyor belt of money from the richer parts of Canada. Plus, a “democratic” Senate would feel empowered to block the House, yielding blackmail and/or deadlock.
Compare the two chambers. The Senate costs about one penny per day per Canadian, the House about four times as much. The Senate does better committee work by far. House committees are nothing but an extension of Commons warfare, so apparent in the silliness of Question Period. The Senate is less partisan.
The place to reform is the House. Prime Minister Stephen Harper can make it happen because at the moment, through iron party discipline, he controls everything in the Commons. This newspaper has just completed a series detailing various reforms. These would empower MPs (and therefore those of us who elect them), give genuine representation and constrain the Prime Minister. No bad thing.
Mr. Harper, you want reform? Forget the Senate. (Except to make better appointments.) Reform the House. Failure to do so suggests more than a whiff of doubletalk.
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