Calls to abolish the scandal-plagued Senate pointless, say experts


OTTAWA – Calls to abolish the Senate, as proposed by Saskatchewan’s premier and the federal Opposition, are destined to go nowhere, say constitutional experts.

Premier Brad Wall says his Saskatchewan Party wants the doors closed on the upper chamber of Parliament.

A recent mail-in referendum, the results of which were released Monday, saw 86 per cent of just over 3,700 of the party’s members vote to abolish the Senate.

Demands to either dramatically reform or abolish the Senate have become more pronounced as a scandal unfolds over allegations that a handful of senators misused public money by making improper housing or travel-expense claims.

The scandal has resulted in the resignation of the prime minister’s chief of staff, an RCMP investigation and the departures of three senators — Conservatives Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin and Liberal Mac Harb — from their party caucuses.

Another former Conservative senator, Patrick Brazeau, was removed from the Tory caucus over an unrelated criminal matter that is currently before the courts.

But calls to close down the Senate are reactionary, and pointless, says University of Ottawa professor Errol Mendes.

“(Abolition) is a non-starter, whatever Saskatchewan and Brad Wall thinks,” says Mendes. “It’s not going to happen.”

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has also said he will campaign in the next federal election on a platform that includes getting rid of the unelected body.

But the Constitution requires, at minimum, the approval of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population to make any significant changes to the Senate, including abolishing it.

And a national debate over Senate abolition would only open the door to demands from the provinces for other changes to the Constitution, says Ned Franks, an emeritus political science professor at Queen’s University.

British Columbia’s premier appears to be the only one backing Wall in his call for abolition of the so-called chamber of sober second thought.

Ontario, under former premier Dalton McGuinty, endorsed the idea. But the province’s newest premier, Kathleen Wynne, said in May that she sees value in maintaining a reformed version of the upper chamber of Parliament.

The Quebec government has expressed strong opposition to closing the Senate’s doors. And there is no appetite for abolition in the East either.

“The Atlantic provinces would basically say (the Senate) is the reason why we came into Confederation,” said Mendes.

“And that makes it the end of the story (on abolition),” added Franks.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper effectively closed the door to significant Senate reform by giving up on the notion of finding a way to have senators chosen independently, said Mendes.

Harper campaigned in 2006 to have senators elected.

After coming to power, however, one of his first acts was to appoint his Conservative election campaign co-chair, Michael Fortier, as both a senator and minister of public works.

Shortly afterward, Harper attempted to have right-wing reformist Gwyn Morgan appointed as commissioner of public appointments.

When the opposition parties refused to accept Morgan in the yet-to-be-created position, Harper backed away from forming the commission.

“(The prime minister) could have had some of the most credible elder statespeople in Canada being appointed to a commission who could work with the provinces to establish credible appointees to the Senate,” said Mendes.

“He not only didn’t fulfil his promises, he went ahead and appointed the type of people who are now at the core of the problems plaguing the Senate.”

Both Mendes and Franks argue that the Senate, with some reforms to improve accountability for spending tax dollars, is worth keeping around.

A recent example of how the upper chamber can function well as an arm of government, they said, was the vote last month to amend Bill C-377.

The bill, which could dramatically change the rules around financial disclosure by unions, was amended in the Senate with the backing of 16 Conservative senators who voted with the Liberals to block the legislation. The controversial bill will now go back to the House of Commons.

The prime minister has referred a number of questions related to Senate reform to the Supreme Court of Canada, asking the high court for an opinion on term limits, the process for making appointments, qualifications and how the chamber could be abolished.

The court has yet to hear the reference.

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Calls to abolish the scandal-plagued Senate pointless, say experts

  1. I wouldn’t characterize calls to abolish the senate as “pointless”. The senate may never be abolished but these calls to do so send a clear message to our politicians that Canadians are disgusted with the long-time corruption in the senate. They also speak to the lack of confidence we have in our politicians regarding their desire or ability to ever reform the senate sufficiently to make it into anything but what it has always been…a means of providing patronage appointments to political party faithful.

    • The democratic will of the people is not pointless. If a referendum is held and the people elect to get rid of the pointless institution it is toast. (That’s the way democratic countries handle these kind of things. Is Canada any different?)

      Of course, we need to wait for the real experts in the Supreme Court to rule on the requirements for abolition. Whether it requires the 7/50 constitutional amendment formula, or the agreement of all 10 provinces, it most certainly will not require Quebec to sign onto the 1982 Constitutional Act (as some “experts” hysterically claim.)

      • I would certainly be pleased to have the question to abolish the senate put to a referendum.

        • I think it’s a good possibility. Harper has said the senate in its current form is intolerable. If he can’t reform it he will support abolishing it. He might act before 2015 to leave a legacy. Also Harper knows that if Trudeau becomes PM the chance to reform the senate will be lost. (Trudeau, for all intents and purposes, supports the status quo.)

        • Absolutely but not just by party members or premiers it has got to be by all Canadians.

          • I agree.

  2. >> “The Atlantic provinces would basically say (the Senate) is the reason why we came into Confederation,” said Mendes. <<

    This guy is a clown. The senate is filled with partisan crony appointments who offer absolutely no representation for the provinces. The only one senators are accountable to is the PM who appointed them. (As Mulroney was fond of pointing out.) The provinces would be giving up nothing by giving up that nonsense.

    We should either elect senators so they actually represent the provinces and are held accountable to them. Or get rid of them. It should be Canadians who decide, not premiers who are elected indirectly (almost always by a minority of voters, BTW.)

    This "expert" has as much credibility as a Big Foot expert.

  3. How on earth does this professor feel he can speak for the eastern provinces. I read many professors talking out of the back of their neck making nothing but assumptions. I feel sure he has come forward for a reason, probably with a promise of something from some one who wants to keep the Senate. The Senate is only used to put defeated politicians and friends into a highly paid job who will pass all bills from the commons. This being known as a fact makes it being a chamber for second sober thought nothing but a dream and total nonsense which this professor is speaking.

  4. Harper has put into the Senate every single elected senator that has been presented.

    The laggard provinces need only start running their senatorial elections if they think that Prime Ministerial appointments are not the best way to go.

  5. This whole country was set up by and on the power of our personal (sovereignty). The government runs on our personal (exemption). This is the natural order things as far as law goes, Gods Law, Natural Law, Common Law, Canon Law, Admiralty Law, Talmudic Law, Corporate Law, is statutes only and by-laws. Only sovereigns are Law and corporate citizens is legal. Corporations cannot make any laws, they are an act of the King and the legislature. How can corporations be government?