All the reasons to have a Senate

Defenders of the red chamber, summon your best rallying cries


Lamenting that the discussion around the Senate has been over-simplified, Dale Smith lays out all the reasons to keep our Senate.

The notion that the Senate is a stopgap against a “temporary dictatorship” is a fairly specious argument, but it cannot be denied that the Senate’s role of “sober second thought” is integral to its role. The sobriety, however, stems from its appointed nature, free from the populist excesses of the elected House that sometimes get the better of its judgement. That appointed nature allows it to speak “truth to power” to the elected officials without fear of retribution. The protection of minorities – a hallmark of liberal democracies – was built into the structure of the Senate rather than provincial interests…

The Senate’s appointed nature also allows for a greater diversity of backgrounds of its membership, as it can gather the voices of those who would never seek elected office otherwise, despite a history of accomplishment. This diversity of experience also lends to its role as a built-in “think tank” for government, where high-level policy can be explored and debated in an ongoing capacity with a permanent infrastructure in place to keep it cost-effective. When one considers that Senate reports are of consistently high quality, oftentimes higher than the reports of royal commissions without the costs associated with said commissions, and done in a cross-partisan manner, it produces results that the Commons is not able to, nor would be feasible coming from private sector think-tanks, the majority of whom are partisan by nature. As well, that same appointed nature and lengthy terms give Senators the ability to not only retain the institutional memory of Parliament, where there is a high turnover rate in the Commons, but it also allows it the luxury of long-term perspective, rather than one that is focused solely on the next electoral cycle. It also allows for greater continuity in joint committee work, such as the scrutiny of regulations, one of those technical and tedious areas where the Senate tends to do the “adult work” of Parliamentary oversight. These are yet more functions that cannot be replicated in the Commons.

This is a useful defence of the upper chamber and the argument for keeping the Senate might serve as a good starting point for the entire discussion. Believers in a Senate should muster their best arguments for the chamber and then we should proceed with a series of questions.

Do you consider these attributes to be necessary to our official system of governance? Do we need a Senate that fulfills these duties and qualities? Does the current Senate adequately fulfill those duties and qualities? If not, why not? And finally, crucially, on what basis can we justify maintaining a chamber that is populated entirely with individuals appointed by the Prime Minister?

Even if you say yes to each of the first three questions—and I don’t think I do—that last one is a doozy. Dale likens the appointing of senators to the appointing of judges, but I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. First, there is a question of process. Second, there is a question of result. (And maybe there is a question of purview.) If there are questions to be asked about the individuals being appointed as federal judges—and I won’t pretend to know nearly enough about the legal system to begin to pretend to know whether there legitimately are—then that process needs to be reviewed. If there are questions to be asked about the individuals being appointed as senators—and I dare say there might be—then that process needs to be reviewed. But, ultimately, the answer can’t be, “Well, the Prime Minister should simply stop appointing partisan cronies whose appointments subject the Senate to questions about its existence.” So long as the appointment of senators is entirely at the whim of the Prime Minister, the appointments process will be philosophically problematic.

But there certainly needs to be a full and long discussion about the merits and utility of the Senate we presently have, the original purpose of the chamber, to what degree we absolutely require a second chamber and, if we do require one, what it should be like. And let us not be too limited by the idea that significant change is too difficult to achieve. Dream no little dream and all that.

(As to Dale’s suggestion that I drifted into myopia with my invoking of Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Korea, Iceland and Denmark—all nations that seem to have avoided tyranny despite lacking bicameral legislatures—in this post, I would note in my defence that I was responding to a very specific concern: that to not have a senate is to invite dictatorship. The relative demographics of those countries and their applicability to the discussion of whether a senate is required is another discussion.)


All the reasons to have a Senate

  1. Democracy demands suspicion. The framers of our government understood that fundamental fact. Democracy leaves a door open to unbridled populism and an attendant risk that voters may elect a scoundrel, or worse a team of scoundrels.

    Yes, the notion of an appointed body over-ruling an elected one seems offensive today, but the fact remains that our system has checks and balances of which one is the Senate; it isn’t just a check against a government, but democracy too.

    It isn’t surprising that people these days, so influenced by republicanism inherent in American culture, find the notion disturbing, but the Senate is just what it is supposed to be. The notion of reform or abolition is ridiculous.

    The Senate is supposed to function by a collection of cronies and hacks who are supposed to feel somewhat independent of party politics, or an allegiance to the PM who appointed them. Naturally, one assumes that their thankfulness for the perks and pay maintains their loyalty, but thankfully too, politicians are not moral creatures. They are scoundrels, as they are supposed to be.

    The problem isn’t the Senate. The problem is the unwillingness of politically astute observers and pundits to understand the purpose and role of that great institution. It is doing just what it is supposed to do. Our system of government is dependent on several ironies; this is just one of them.

    The underlying assumption is counter intuitive, but true. Democracy rests on power and the natural tendency for it to corrupt decent people. That insight, written so long ago by Baron John Acton (1834-1902), expressed a widely understood political reality in a letter to Bishop Mandell Chreighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “Great men are almost always bad men.”

    Today, people consider such an opinion negative or cynical, but Baron Acton was more right than he knew. A democratically elected, majority government can be just as tyrannical and corrupt as the worst of European monarchs who ruled by war, oppression, and privilege. The institution of the Senate brings balance and essential second thought on legislation passed by the Lower House, which steadies Democracy in uncertain times; at least that was the peculiar notion that the framers of our political system imagined when they envisioned it.

    • In an ideal government power is shared and distributed, it isn’t centralized. But our system has the major flaw of PM is term dictator in a majority government situation. With no recall, no referendum and no direct control over governance, the people really vote for puppet MPs to a PM term dictator.

      Senate has never been of any use to Canadians. Never once blocking legislation because the popular opinion was against it. Never once represents the main stream majority middle class.

      For that reason, the senate is useless. Maybe even beyond useless as it just makes governance more byzantine bureaucratic mess of dysfunction. And why I think abolishment being so simple, it has to work even for Ottawa.

      Sure, I think the parliamentary system is a ruse of democracy, a farce stage show. But I doubt Ottawa will ever structure itself to listen to the people, or we would have recall, referendum and recourse when government unilateral does something against popular opinion. Raising this is just more stalling to delay what is right, the senate is a useless waste of money.

  2. Whenever someone takes an interesting but not life-or-death issue and populates his discussion with terms like “crucially” and “needs to happen”, I am reminded of the words of the Rt. Honourable Stephan Dion – “Canada is a country that works in practice, if not in theory.”

    • Many organizations and instututions (including many business organizations) are like that: they somehow function in spite of themselves.

  3. We can have an appointed Senate that isn’t appointed by the Prime Minister. The motherland pulled it off, and so can (and should!) we. I would answer yes to the first two questions and a resounding “some of the time” to the third.

    I fully agree that we shouldn’t limit ourselves based on the difficulty of change. We can rise to this challenge, if we put our collective minds to it.

  4. Canada’s Senate is at the very centre of the Canadian federal principle and it is key to Canadian national unity. The fundamental problem is that of space and population. As at Confederation, the geography is large and demanding and with its own defining regional nature region by region. The population is similarly variable, not just in the sense of the French/English solitudes but in other ways tied to geography of course but also of immigration patterns, economic activity, concentrations of urban vs rural and so on. These facts are reflected in the regional distribution of Senate Divisions, with a nod to the provinces by allowing Senators to be appointed according to province within each regional division. But they are not to be representatives of so-called provincial interest borrowed from American federalism which is based on states rights, hence they are the United States of America whereas Canada was consciously created as one Dominion.

    Indeed, Sir John A. Macdonald would write “Canada is not half a dozen provinces; Canada is One Great Dominion.”

    Regional diversity was consciously chosen at Confederation to solve the problem of space and population but it was not intended to exceed the democratic will of the majority of the population; the concern was to allow regional minority voices to be heard fairly, in the revising chamber, the Senate, as a balance to representation by population. Commons and Senate were to have theoretical equal powers, yet constitutional crisis and political deadlock representing province or party were to be avoided by effectively limiting the powers of the Senate to that of an appointed body (all that talk of lacking legitimacy is really about conscious limiting of the powers of the Senate via its appointed status). Regional voices, including those of French and English, prairie and sea to sea, are provided with the opportunity to review, revise, recommend change to legislation and regulation effecting the whole while necessarily deferring after fair consideration to the democratic mandate of the Commons.

    As it was put in The Modern Senate of Canada, election is not necessary for every part of our democratic system to be elected and to do so does make our system more democratic but may even make it less so where roles like that of the Senate or the judiciary are made subject to popular will.

    Canada’s Senate balances representation by population in the elected House of Commons with regional (not provincial) representation in the appointed Senate.

    Our problem today is really about the present government which looks to its Reform Party roots and wishes to “change how this country is governed” (Stephen Harper) by changing Canada’s constitutional arrangements fundamentally and Canadian federalism by making legislation decided in Parliament by the Canadian government subject to approval by the provinces through Senators accountable to the provinces as provincially elected Senators. Stephen Harper wants Firewalls around the provinces to keep Canada out; Stephen Harper want the Reform Party agenda want to do exactly what our Senate is designed to protect us against: states rights federalism.

    That leaves the basic problems faced today as they appear on the surface: patronage, partisanship, and the threat to national unity of Senators elected to be accountable to the provinces.

    The solution? It may be to allow our institutions to do their historic work, just as the Fathers of Confederation looked to the House of Lords for their solution when they saw the failure of the states rights federalism epitomized by the Civil War then tearing apart the republic to the south.

    Constitutionally, if in some ways not in practice, Senators are nominated on the advice of the Queen’s Ministers in the Privy Council to the Governor General appoints Canada’s Senators as the Queen’s Representative in Canada.

    But this has come to mean on the advice of the prime minister of the day alone as a member of the Privy Council. A single party, a single politician, a single minister, a single privy councillor is making recommendation.

    To remedy this problem of recent origin a quorum of the full Queen’s Privy Council across party lines, across levels of government, across generations since appointment to the QPC is on merit for life, past Chief Justices of the Supreme Court, invited premiers and Leaders of the Opposition and distinquished Canadians are all represented. Surely nomination by the QPC would address the problems of patronage partisanship, and the threat to national unity of provincial election.

    Then we could see, as intended, Parliament consisting of the Queen and monarch, the Senate and Commons as a balance of rep by pop in the Commons with regional representation in the Canadian Senate under the Crown of Canada.

  5. One theory of why it works to have PM’s appoint senators for lengthy terms is that chances are when a new PM from a different party is elected the Senate will be dominated by a different party and will provide some balance. If the terms are lengthy it will be a while before the PM has time to dominate the Senate with his appointees.

    There’s no reason why we couldn’t have a more transparent appointment process. When the US president proposes to appoint someone to the Court or a Cabinet position there is often discussion in the media and a public hearing.

  6. #1 reason: somebody should read the laws before the GG signs them. So either squeeze out the used car dealers and sad-ass small-town lawyers who populate the House and can barely hold the pen to make an X — and good luck with that — or keep the Senate.

  7. The Senate should be composed solely of those people who have won at least one million dollars in a lottery. That way they won’t need to steal from the rest of us.

  8. One point that you seem to have overlooked is that of your six successful unicameral legislatures, four are completely elected by proportional representation and the other two are partially PR. This would lead to more compromises being made in the house than our system allows, making a second chamber a potential check on a partisan house. The problem with the Senate remains, however, the method of selection, but I don’t think that justifies eliminating it.

  9. And none of these reasons benefit me, the middle class non-government productive.

    So abolish the senate. So simple Ottawa can’t get it wrong.