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William Thorsell
William Thorsell


The sheer folly of an elected Senate Add to ...

At a cost of $3-million, Alberta will choose three federal “senators-in-waiting” along with its provincial MLAs this month. Alberta is the only province with legislation to complement Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s scheme to “elect” the entire Senate by appointing individuals chosen in this devious way, but three more provinces look to be joining the game. It’s the most radical and threatening item on Mr. Harper’s political agenda, which says something.

An elected Senate would bring the worst of America’s dysfunctional political system to Canada, eviscerating Canada’s advantage in making tough, timely decisions with transparency and accountability in the parliamentary system. Election of the Senate is the most ignorant and self-destructive plank in the Conservative platform and must not be allowed to see the light of day.

The architects of the U.S. Constitution intentionally designed a system to frustrate the ability of their government to act, so traumatized were they by their revolution against mother Britain. As the world now witnesses, they succeeded brilliantly.

The White House, House of Representatives and Senate are locked in a chronic, grisly dance of obstruction and checkmate, grievously undermining America’s capacity to act in its own interests on the issues of the day. Its system of hyper “checks and balances” has grown so constipated and incomprehensible that the great ship of the United States is visibly drifting on the seas of history, to the anguish of the world.

Why would we want to graft these debilitating dynamics onto our own parliamentary system, which is so superior to that of the U.S., by electing the Canadian Senate?

Surprisingly, under our Constitution, Canada’s appointed Senate is equal in power to the House of Commons in most ways. Legally, it can veto almost any legislation from the House if it wishes. The only reason Canada’s Senate doesn’t do this is because it’s unelected: It doesn’t have the democratic right to override elected MPs, as the U.S. does. That’s our salvation.

Canadians are spared the depressing sight of countless, moneyed special interests inflamed by greasy access to powerful individuals in the upper house (and the lower one) who need not follow party lines, and who can act with impunity for parochial interests. Empowering Canada’s Senate through its election would import precisely the deep structural corruption that the U.S. Constitution incites in that country, infamously and tragically.

In Canada, the party in office generally has the capacity to implement its program through the House with full public debate, and be held accountable for the results every four years. The parliamentary system allows a party to govern within constraints of law and precedent. It allows a government to take wise (and dumb) decisions in the face of entrenched interests (and public opinion in the short run) in a timely, transparent and accountable manner. Starkly un-American.

Our Constitution says the method of selecting senators can be changed only by a constitutional amendment requiring support of Parliament and at least seven provinces with a majority of Canada’s population. This is what you would expect, given how profoundly important this question is.

Mr. Harper says he is not changing the method of selection by appointing provincially elected members – although the whole purpose of appointing elected people is to fundamentally change the nature of Parliament itself. This is a back-alley feint that, if it went very far, would be challenged as unconstitutional before the Supreme Court.

Meantime, Ontario and Quebec (among most provinces for various reasons) are not offering up “elected” Senate candidates to Mr. Harper, because they don’t want yet another unrepresentative level of government in Ottawa, and perhaps because they appreciate the virtues of the parliamentary system as it stands.

Short of abolition, we can improve the appointed Senate, as the government proposes, through term limits and other innovations. But the Senate’s lack of real power isn’t a problem to be cured by its election: It’s something to be tolerated as a much lesser evil.

Leave the somnolent anomaly of the Senate alone: Its slumber is a condition of Canada’s vigour and capacity to care for itself in a challenging world.

William Thorsell served as editor-in-chief of The Globe and Mail from 1989 to 1999.

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