Fix the Senate Don’t Just Scrap It
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, November 10, 2007

Stephane Dion should instruct the Liberal dominated Senate to pass its own motion for a constitutional amendment on comprehensive Senate reform. Following consultations with the provinces, it should be formulated on a stand alone basis. Stephen Harper should then agree to place the amendment on a referendum ballot.

This is the proper response to Senator Segal and NDP Leader Jack Layton’s motions for a referendum on abolishing the Senate and is preferable to poorly conceived ideas on term limits and elections of senators that will do little to improve the comportment, function or legitimacy of the Senate. It is also the obvious antidote to cavalier notions about abolishing an institution seminal both to Canada’s history and its future.

Originally designed to compensate smaller provinces for Central Canada’s dominance in the Commons (hence their disproportionate number of seats), the Senate is one of three entities with authority to initiate an amendment to the constitution. The other two are the federal government and the provinces. But the federal government, despite expert opinion that elected senators could undermine Canada’s system of responsible government, has painted itself into a corner on the subject while the provinces have displayed little imagination and certainly no appetite for opening the constitution. Only Alberta has passed a Senate reform bill built around the triple E concept while Quebec Premier Jean Charest has openly speculated about reforming the Senate along the lines of the House of the Provinces or the German Bundesrat model.

Senators are well equipped to undertake the research, consultations, committee work and legislative draftsmanship necessary to formulate a constitutional amendment. Better still, they can undertake such work discreetly, without the fanfare that accompanied the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. While many Canadians will want some input into how the Senate should be reformed, few will be concerned with the mechanics so long as they have information, followed by debate, on which to make their decision in a referendum. The provinces, some of whom have legislated requirements for a referendum on constitutional amendments, would also be able to decide their support. Then, if Parliament and seven provinces with fifty per cent of Canada’s population agree, the Constitution would be amended and the Senate reformed.

Throughout Canadian history, many attempts have been made to reform the Senate. Most have focused on achieving meaningful representation for the provinces at the federal level. In any new attempt at Senate reform, the need for that focus is more urgent than ever.

For Canada, the pressures of continentalization and globalization continue unabated. Major implications for Canadian unity result from increasing trends among the provinces toward self-determined global and inter-provincial arrangements, Quebec’s nationalist aspirations, Ontario’s economic woes and Canada-US relations post 9/11.

And if pressures exist from without, the means with which to resist from within grow fewer and flimsier. With a spending power that is in retreat, an equalization formula that is controversial and a non-existent economic union of the provinces, federal-provincial battle lines are regularly drawn.

While centrifugal forces and questions around the ties that bind are nothing new for Canada, the increasing strength of the first and weakness of the second should compel renewed appreciation of the importance of maintaining social and political institutions that reflect the dynamic balance of the country and that underpin its stability and cohesion.

Today, Canada needs a political institution that not only reflects but gives procedural coherence to its most dynamic balance, namely federal-provincial relations. Only a Senate reformed along the lines of a House of the Provinces, comprising representatives of provincial governments, can achieve this. Not altogether incompatible with the Triple E model (representatives of provincial governments would likely be elected members of their legislatures), it is the only model likely to gain acceptance among the provinces. After all, given agreement on the allocation of seats, which province would refuse the opportunity to determine its own selection method and term limits?

Politicians play footsie with Canadian institutions at Canada’s peril. Given to excesses of partisanship, politically correct identity politics and ideological manipulations from the left and right, they are already seriously weakened. Now, a Senate discredited primarily by its patronage selection process must necessarily change. But to entertain a motion on its abolition is to play footsie with eliminating yet another tie that could bind the country at a time when it is needed most.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

To comment, please send Margret an e-mail.

Let's make Canada shipshape for the 21st Century