Our upper house of ill repute - Macleans.ca

Our upper house of ill repute

Andrew Coyne on why the Senate is intolerable

Our upper house of ill repute

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Senate is Confederation’s original sin, the great stain on the fathers’ handiwork, from which much greater evils have flowed. Structurally, it has contributed to the divisions and weaknesses that have bedevilled the federation. Without some constitutionally appropriate vehicle for expressing the concerns of the regions in federal politics, it has been left to the premiers, inappropriately, to do the job.

Worse, however, has been its corrosive effects, compounded over time, on our political ethics. It is of course intolerable that a free people should be governed, even in part, by those to whom they did not expressly grant such power. That would be true even if the Senate were filled with Solomons, and not the bizarre cargo of bagmen, strategists, failed candidates, criminals, cranks and other political problems that prime ministers have traditionally solved by the expedient of the Other Place.

Yes, some senators do good work. Committees of the Senate often produce thoughtful reports. But they have no more democratic right to translate their views into law, to move, amend, pass or reject bills and otherwise exercise the powers of legislators than I do. Though by convention the Senate’s powers are less than they appear on paper, they are still more than any patronage house should rightfully have, and have been exceeded on more than one occasion.

So it’s wrong: wrong in principle, and decidedly wrong in its sordid Canadian practice. What is more, we all know it’s wrong, and have known it from the start. And yet there it was, staring us in the face every day: a bordello, where one of our two legislative houses should have stood. As with certain other sins to which we have accommodated ourselves (our 50-year indulgence of separatism comes to mind), it made us more tolerant of the intolerable generally. After all, if such blatant corruption—let’s call it what it is—could be carried on in full view of the public, again and again, without kicking up more than a token amount of fuss, what else could the public be persuaded to accept?

Quite a lot, it turned out. If you want to know why our politics are so peculiarly amoral, so entirely uninterested in priniciple, so pliable, I suggest you start with the effects of 144 years of bending ourselves around the Senate. It was, to be frank, shaming, but since people can’t live with shame, we became cynical instead. Can’t be helped, we shrugged. No way to change it. And so instead it changed us.

All of which is a prologue to the current attempt at Senate reform. Though the critics have made no conspicuous proposals to reform the Senate themselves, they are full of reasons why this plan cannot possibly succeed. The provinces might not agree to elect their senators. The prime minister might not appoint those they did. Worse, he might—and then where would we be: with a Senate half-elected, and half-appointed?

Inspired by the legitimacy a democratic mandate confers, elected senators might begin to exercise real legislative power, based purely on the present haphazard allotment of seats, in which New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have more senators than British Columbia or Alberta. Why, it would be a mess, that’s what it would be. And—the capper—to what end? The public is not demanding this. There is no crisis to be averted. What on Earth could Stephen Harper be thinking, to wander into such a thicket?

Well, yes. And yes and yes and yes. There is no crisis. The public is not clamouring for the Senate to be fixed. There is no momentum for reform, and the Prime Minister’s proposals would almost certainly end in chaos. Perhaps that’s the point.

The status quo of an appointed house is, remember, intolerable. And yet we have all learned to tolerate it, precisely because it is the status quo. But a half-elected, half-appointed Senate, a Senate beginning to use its powers notwithstanding its lopsided distribution, would be something entirely new. Then it would not just be intolerable: we would not tolerate it. Then it really would be a crisis, one that the country would have no choice but to deal with.

Either, that is, the winner of the last three elections has entirely lost his mind, and is pursuing this mad adventure without any strategy for achieving it. Or he’s up to something. The alternatives the critics propose—either “do it properly,” with a round of negotiations among the premiers and a constitutional amendment, or “just abolish it”—are no less unrealistic, since they do not suggest how this process could even get under way, let alone be completed.

I realize I am in danger of enrolling in the “he’s playing chess, while they’re playing checkers” school on Harper. But his previous prime ministerial missteps were either quickly abandoned, as with the national anthem, or had some obvious political upside, as with prorogation, that might at least explain, if not justify, his actions. (The long-form census fiasco remains, I concede, a puzzle.)

The absence of a clear payoff to Senate reform, and yet his sustained and deliberate pursuit of it, suggests something else is at work. Perhaps he is attempting, as the Leninists would say, to advance the crisis, to make the intolerable no longer tolerated, to force us to confront what we have all grown rather too used to ignoring.


Our upper house of ill repute

  1. Andrew,

    Thanks for this. I have been thinking this for a few days, but haven’t mentioned it. I didn’t want to seem like I was saying ‘he’s playing chess, while they’re playing checkers’. In the back of my mind, I was wondering if he was doing this to force the issue later on. (Not for himself, as it might take 20 years for the change to happen).

    I too remained puzzled by the long form census.

    • I remain puzzled by people’s puzzlement over the census. The elimination of the long form census will, over time, reduce the Federal government’s ability to govern the country as they will have less information about the country with which to work.

      It becomes more difficult to justify funding things like settlement assistance for new immigrants if you don’t know how many new immigrants are living in a given area; what their level of English/French language proficiency is; what their household income is; how big a family they have; etc. etc. All things the long-form census would tell you in data that you could aggregate and divide in all kinds of way.

      And that is but one of thousands examples.

      Good governance generally requires a political theory (ideology) and empirical evidence about the people/place being governed (practicalities). If you have less empirical evidence, you either govern less, or govern simply based on ideology. What would Harper not like about either of those outcomes?

      • Good points.

        Not user about you, but I personally like the ‘govern less’ approach. :)

        • The less data implies less governance proposition is not demonstrated. It could be (and likely is) a matter of less data leading to worse governance. It could well be more, since bad governance requires more to meet minimum expectations.

          I find it appalling that people want our society to operate in a fog of ignorance and ideology rather than empirical analysis and rational decision-making.

          • “In the face of a crisis, good demographic data could allow for a far
            more targeted expansion in government. Not only would it be cheaper to
            deliver, but it would also be simpler – politically – to disassemble
            after. The trouble with “New Deals” is that they create large groups of
            stakeholders that like programs that might have been intended as
            temporary measures.”

            This is the truest comment that M L made. The reason I am against the gov’t interfering isn’t that I am evil, or that I don’t want to help people. I think that there are better ways to do it. It is proven, though, that no matter what the gov’t starts, it is nearly impossible to stop later on. Every good intentioned liberal plan, once started, continues to grow, become more inefficient, and less able to solve the problems that it was set up to ‘fix’.

            My personal fear is that if liberal minded people had enough ‘info’ and power, they would try to legislate every perceived problem out of existence, and create a program to help with that.

          • But reducing the quality of the data does not reduce the drive of liberals to increase the scope of the state. It just means that expansions of the state will be even more inefficient, disruptive, etc.

            Liberals are as willing as conservatives to substitute ideology for rational decision-making. Taking away facts isn’t going to stop liberals in their tracks, it’s just going to lead to more looney, truthy liberalism. Just look at the NDP.

          • @Andrew_notPorC:disqus

            Good point – I can only hope you are wrong. Without solid facts, I would hope that it will be harder to ‘sell’ big spends to the electorate. Either way, anything that might slow the growth of the gov’t I am all for.

            I would hope that the ‘lack or data’ will stunt the lib’s ability to think of more programs to create. :)

      • I’m not sure that more data necessarily means bigger government – and certainly the correlation seems to have run in the other direction over the past few decades. Expansions in government tend not to be a linear, evolutionary process. Rather, historically, government has expanded in crises – eg. WWII, the Great Depression, and lets not forget the crisis of 2008. While not all of the added extractive capacity remains for governments after a crisis, the tendency is for the size of government to ratchet in the upwards direction. 

        In the face of a crisis, good demographic data could allow for a far more targeted expansion in government. Not only would it be cheaper to deliver, but it would also be simpler – politically – to disassemble after. The trouble with “New Deals” is that they create large groups of stakeholders that like programs that might have been intended as temporary measures. 

        Moreover, day-to-day good data can help to reduce government just as much as it can to increase it. Lets sidebar the question of whether “reality has a liberal bias” for the moment. The real issue is whether Stephen Harper/Tony Clement think reality has a liberal bias, and I think the obvious answer is that they don’t. 

        The elimination of the census was about politics. First, the Conservatives have  informational advantages over their political opponents. Eliminating the long-form census (which is one of the few surveys available at the riding level) would give them a considerable edge in targeting policies at election time. 

        Secondly, the categories of people likely to respond to a voluntary long-form census are generally people likely to vote Conservative (responses are lowest among young, francophone, poor and native Canadians). Insofar as the long-form census retains some legitimacy, it can be used to ensure a greater flow of resources toward traditionally conservative interest groups. 

        We shouldn’t expect the Tories to govern from the right any more than we should expect the Liberals to govern from the left.

    • I speculated this a few weeks ago. I’m not accusing Coyne of purloining my idea, just that this is the only reasonable conclusion.

  2. “It is of course intolerable that a free people should be governed, even
    in part, by those to whom they did not expressly grant such power.”

    With a comment like this, is your next article going to be about judges? – lol

    • Judges don’t govern; they interpret the laws as written by the politicians. Some of those laws are pretty sloppily written, such that the interpretation the court gives may not mesh with what the politicians themselves or a sizable chunk of the electorate would like. And of course, there’s the wild card of the Charter – again, a political creation.

      I’d much rather our system than one where judges’ decisions are made with an eye to how it may impact their chances of reelection. If I were accused of a heinous crime I did not commit, but one which has the general population up in arms and looking for blood, I really don’t think I’d want to take my chances with a judge who is weeks from an election and down in the polls…

      • I wasn’t suggesting that judges should be elected, just that they play more of a role in out governance than the senate. I understand that they are supposed to interpret the law, but as you mention with the charter, they ‘read in’ an awful lot. We are governed by lots of things that judges have ‘read in’ to the law.

      • Appointed judges — no accountability. Elected judges — no independence.

        Prior to Cromwell’s conquering of Ireland, judges there were neither appointed nor elected. They were chosen by the parties at odds, much as lawyers are chosen today. There was no distinction between criminal and civil law. All offenses were considered a tort. Restitution was the name of the game.

  3. If Harper wanted to highlight problems with the Senate, his appointments certainly have done that.

  4. You’re puzzled by Harper’s insistence on abandoning the long form census, Andrew? It’s to eliminate any government-produced statistical and factual basis for arguments in favour of things the Conservatives are in want of eliminating, like safe injection sites. There’s no mystery there.

    • Facts have a rather unfortunate liberal bias, after all.

  5. I’m just not feeling it, AC.  The appointed Upper Chamber^, while registering on the moral turpitude side of the scale, is hardly the gravest source of corruption in our society.  Leaving aside those social questions that perforce activate petards of indignation and lamentatious wails of transgression, the unlawful* position of private finance, conceptually enthroned by corporate law, within extended Western society has done far more to corrupt individual behaviour, than the Upper Chamber ever could, even if it was actively trying to.  

    Most of the subjects that you have been writing on from Canada Post to trading wheat for cars, are not as a result of corrupt behaviour, moral lassitude, or slothful disdain for industry per se on the part of the visible participants, whether postie, driver, farmer or the sick.  No, the conflicts over, say public funded roads or schools or healthcare or what have you, are but visible manifestations of the illogical  of the demands by the central stake holders in attempting to protect their ill-gotten, private held, and tacit claims on the general welfare.  As usual, shepherded by the agency of “useful gentlemen and women,” to the exclusion of all other interests not under the purview of the Elect. Hank Paulson’s TARP shakedown comes to mind, as an emblematic example.  

    *And by unlawful, I do not mean against the statutes, which are now but the whim of factions, but against a thorough going organization of society based upon some concept that used to be called natural law. 

    ^ the fact that the Senate has, in potential at least, the chance of becoming a locus of opposition is likely to be, to some ill-tempered minds, reason enough to desire it’s demise.  

  6. There is not a single Senator in the Senate who has not been appointed by the Governor-General on the specific recommendation of the Prime Minister and the government who were elected for the express purpose to fulfill the responsibilities of the government, which includes making recommendations as to who should sit in the Senate. There is nothing undemocratic about the Senate nor the fashion in which select Canadians become Senators.

  7. “It is of course intolerable that a free people should be governed, even in part, by those to whom they did not expressly grant such power.” — True. And the objection applies equally to MPs as it does senators.

  8. Does Andrew wish that federally appointed judges be elected, also?

  9. Frankly, I’d rather be led by QE II than all the monkeys in parliament. Plato had it right, though for the wrong reasons: democracy is the worst of all possible forms of government.

    • Never mind that Canada isn’t a democracy – it’s a smooth dictatorship.

  10. “Worse, however, has been its corrosive effects, compounded over time, on
    our political ethics. It is of course intolerable that a free people
    should be governed, even in part, by those to whom they did not
    expressly grant such power.”

    What I find interesting is that Andrew can be arguing that at the same time he is over on the side extolling the virtues of the monarchy with Paul. How are these different? At least the senators do some work. How about judges, parents  etc?

    Back to the Senate. Abolishing it would be terrible with out propping up the Supreme Court first. And making Senators dependants of party bag men would be only marginally better than actually being bag men like many are right now.

    The real answer is to have the Senate appointed by a committee of the house of commons made up by law of two members of the government, two members of the opposition and one from the third place party. That way no one party could push their hacks in like they do right now. 

    • Not that I think your “real answer” is a bad one per se, but it reinforces my belief in abolition – everyone seems to have their own solution to fix the Senate, and I don’t see how you can get enough agreement to implement something sensible instead of something stupid and compromised.  Abolition, on the other hand, has the advantage of being all or nothing.

  11. Now I know why this country is 3rd tier in the world. A journalist writes a good article about the problems of the undemocratic and very costly senate ( Mr. Brian Williams take note) and a bunch commentators jump in to discuss it but they go off on a tangent on census forms. This is why no changes will ever come – the lack of attention to a serious matter or even anger is just not in Canadians’ genetic makeup. They have been treated like children by their political masters for too long a time. Here is some arithmetic to ponder: the US has about 10 times the population of Canada, 100 ELECTED senators, two from each state whereas wealthy Canada has 105 UNELECTED, politically appointed but definitely not proportionately representative of the provinces. MPs, 308 which is about 70% of the Americans’ 435 house representatives. Who is over-governed and taxed heavily to pay for all these politicians? And here is a kicker to the whole situation – a Liberal senator appointed in 2002 has just been sentenced to six months in jail (I’ll bet he doesn’t go) for skimming over $10,000 in false travel claims and obstructing justice in 2007. He has just resigned in time to claim his estimated $79,000 pension for the rest of his life. Nice work if you can get it and it seems you can in Canada if you are “employed” by the great Canadian senate. And you guys probably still want to discuss the census form!

    • I’m not sure what it is about this article you consider a good argument against the senate.

      There’s not one substantial example in the entire thing. It’s just a bunch of adverbs and adjectives transformed into pros that doesn’t discuss a single fact or establish any fundamental reasons for the opinion.

      Flowery language not-withstanding, the entire thing is one big complaint that never explains itself.

    • So… democracy is too expensive? Great point.

  12. Why is abolishing it a non-starter (aside from the constitutional details)?  Surely we don’t need a second elected house that mirrors the corruption we see in the American Senate?  They are the original briefcase-full-of-money caracatures for a reason.  They represent their regions via questionable and often expensive federal earmarks that get amended onto completely unrelated bills.  If we did go the route of a fully elected Senate, we would need to put anti-corruption safeguards in place from day one.

  13. This article is a nice bit of hyperbole. Well written for sure.

    I could perhaps agree in some sort of abstract intellectual way if I felt that Coyne provided at least some basis for the angst, but alas, his main complaint seems to be… wait, what was the daming evidence again?

    Oh right, it’s morally repugnant or anti-democratic or something?

    Not sure how he got there of course since he doesn’t lay out any rational path to follow for the unwashed masses who don’t sit stewing about a perceived perfection that doesn’t exist.

    That there exists an extraneous body to parliament that essentially provides advice to the government (a.k.a the Prime Minister), that was chosen by existing governments (a.k.a. previous and present Prime Ministers) is hardly something to get worked up about to degree demonstrated in this article.

    So then, what, pray tell, is Andrew Coyne’s point?

    That there should be a more robust check on the Prime Minister?
    That a truly bicameral system would be preferable?


  14. Maybe, as often suggested ,dissolution of the senate is the best solution. Coyne’s article is not so much offering hard solutions as it is an impossible attempt to wake up the citizenry to the problem. If we have known from the start how undemocratic, costly and ineffective the senate has always been, then the problem comes back to how uninvolved or apathetic are the Canadian people. Having been away for a fair period of time, I’ve come back to see that nothing has changed in the Canadian character so naturally nothing has in the governance of the country other than there are many more politicians – far too many – for the population size of the country and the associated costs in that increase. What this tells me is that Canadians are very uninvolved, almost apathetic, to how their country is being run and for people who gripe a lot about their high taxes, this surprises me. Must be a character flaw.

    • Most opinion polls show majority support for changes in the senate so I can hardly see how this reflects on Canadians generally. In fact, didn’t Canadians just vote in a party that has senate reform as a key plank?

      And if Coyne really is trying to “wake up the citizenry” then he’s done a poor job of explaining himself. There’s not one supporting statment of fact in the entire article for pete’s sake.

  15. ” It is of course intolerable that a free people should be governed, even
    in part, by those to whom they did not expressly grant such power. ”

    Sorry, Andrew, but this is a line of thinking that leads us to an elected Senate, but also an elected Head of State (GG) and what, an elected judiciary? An elected GG would inevitably become a president, with veto powers and the ability to command the military. Is that also desirable?

  16. Whilst it’s possible Harper’s playing chess – it’s clear the board upon which he wants all to play is so tilted in his favour that his endgame, whatever it is, will lack legitimacy.  In turn, this will lead to more urgent calls for “real” and potentially radical senate reform.  And no, I do not for a minute think this is Harper’s endgame.  As for abolition, I reject out of hand the abolitionists belief their agenda will succeed. Fact is, given our regional makeup it is neither doable nor desirable.

    Senate reform is misunderstood and as Harper’s current proposals demonstrate, it is too often approached arse-backwards.  Harper’s craven populist pandering that would alter the process governing the selection of future senators is small potatoes. And by itself, largely meaningless. Instead of worrying solely about codifying how our new lunatics will gain admittance to an existing ineffectual asylum, wouldn’t it be saner to ask first if the asylum’s plumbing is sound?  Wouldn’t it be saner first to enact reforms that concentrated on the Senate’s existing powers (do they require either enhancement or modification?) and its regional redistribution formulas. Wouldn’t it be better to seek a consensus (albeit fractured) on what we want, expect, and need our Senate to do? 

    Would this mean re-opening the constitution? Yes. Yes it would. So be it. We are a mature democracy. And we deserve more than calculated half-measures when it comes to senate reform.  We do not deserve the tawdry tinkering Stephen Harper is trying to pass off as ‘real’ reforms; we deserve a chance to properly reform the senate on nothing less than the constitutional level. Anything less is unacceptable.

  17. Reform or abolishment of the senate was the one small scrap of silver lining I was trying to convince myself existed after the Reform Conservative’s smoke and mirrors, multimillion dollar, multi-year campaign produced a majority government. 

    Alas as with any of Harper’s previous promises that increased democracy it has proven to be just more, well, smoke and mirrors.  I am not sure why we expect any different from a Straussian, lying is integral to the strategy. 

    Fixed election dates, greater transparency were both flimsy facades, reforming the senate just the latest illusion to fade.

  18. Perhaps before we worry about the upper house we should make the lower house resemble the votes cast by Canadians.

  19. It’s wrong to point the finger at the Senate and say it is wrong in it’s formulation. The Father’s of Confederation lived in an entirely different time where decorum, dignity, and honour actually meant something. It truly was formed as a house of second sober thought intended to be populated by men of sufficient gravitas and honour and experience to help guide the government of the day. I don’t think that it’s original formulation was intended to become the house of horrors it is today but that corruption took place at the hands of lesser men.

    I don’t like the thought of an elected Senate divided along the lines of the American system. I don’t like the thought of elections and campaigns night and day 24/7 and 365 days a year either. Nor do I like the craven puppets paying legislative tithes to their master in the house of commons.

    Perhaps what we need is something in between. Perhaps we should be choosing from a field of accomplished and successful experts who would not normally run for elections yet are still interested in serving their country for a few years. Perhaps these nominees would be selected from a field of distinguished retired people who have accomplished great things in their careers. In other words we need men and women of substance to provide that necessary sober second thought.

    What we don’t need are more used car salesmen making decisions on arts funding or lawyers making decisions about the future of our nuclear industry that now populate the house of commons. What we don’t need is a sinister Prime Minister using the chamber as puppet house for rubber stamping his proclamations.

    The Senate as originally conceived was on the right track but now we need to tweak it slightly to give it powers it did not originally have but we certainly don’t want to have a Senate that is selected as if it were a popularity contest. We need a strong working Senate that is completely independent from the house of commons and is not beholden to the government of the day for it’s existence nor should it be subjected to the vagaries of election campaigns for selection.