Do Canadians want a Senate?

by Aaron Wherry

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal revives his proposal of a referendum on Senate abolition.

Segal envisions one simple referendum question: “Do you think the Senate should be abolished? Yes or No.” “That would have a clarity and an impact and a weight in our political discussions that none of the other discussions to date have had.”

Senator Segal floated this idea a year and a half ago.

In this case, he thinks a referendum should be conducted before the Supreme Court returns with its response to the Harper government’s questions about Senate reform and abolition.




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Do Canadians want a Senate?

  1. No. Abolish the damn thing. Lots of countries have one level of govt, and that’s all we need too.

    • If we had a system where we could fire unwanted politicians, we wouldn’t need a senate at all.

    • Lots of countries have one level of govt, but all federal states in the world are bicameral. You don’t seem to realize that Canada is a federation, and what it means. Canada is one of the, if not the, largest and most decentralized federal state in the world, with powerful provincial sovereign governments, with people of different languages, cultures, history. We recognize more than 100 nations in this federal state. Abolishing the Senate will not change Canada into a Denmark or Sweden unitary state.

      We consistently rank in the top ten of the most developed, most democratic states in the world. And we have been able to do this with the institutions we have had since 1867, and that includes an appointed Senate. And we should abolish this institution because our prime ministers have misused their powers to appoint since 1867? Simpler, more effective and definitely safer to limit our prime ministers’ power to appoint.

      All we need to do… is destroy the federation that we have?

      • This is just silly.

        We have 2 levels solely because we copied England, and they have aristocracy and commoners with laws for each. We have neither.

        One level will do just fine.

        Our provinces aren’t sovereign and we don’t have 100 nations.

        Eliminating the senate won’t change Canada in any way….it’ll be cheaper to run, with fewer problems, that’s all.

        • Our provinces are sovereign states with elected assemblies that collect income and other taxes. They make laws, administer justice including laws that are of federal jurisdiction. They are solely responsible for a number of fields, including health, education, two of the most expensive domains of public spending anywhere. Canada currently recognizes 630 First Nations governments or bands, 10 provincial governments, and three territorial governments.

          You cannot provide a single example of a unicameral federal state because there aren’t any. The US, Switzerland, Germany etc., have no aristocracy and they are bicameral federal states.

          Don’t be silly : you have no idea what eliminating the senate would do, it’s strictly your guessing game. What you and I know is that Canada with the institutions it has had in place since 1867 consistently ranks in the top ten democracies in the world. That you know. And that’s what you’re ready to gamble with on vague ideas and concepts sold to you by political propagandists. I am not.

          • No Loraine they are not. I don’t know where you learned civics but you should demand your money back.

            Canada recognizes no province, territory or FN as sovereign….what the helll did you think the question was the last few weeks about the FN?

            The US copied the UK….Germany had an aristocracy, has been taken apart and pasted back together….and Switzerland isn’t a confederation either.

            Most of the top nations in the world have no senate….including number one….Norway.

            My gawd, if everyone was as terrified of change as you are, we’d still live in the caves!

          • I don’t know where you learned yours:

            In the Canadian federation, the provinces are each a separate jurisdiction of the Canadian Crown, wherein a hereditary monarch is the sovereign and head of state of each province, forming the core of its Westminster style parliamentary democracy.[13] As the institution from which the power of the state flows, the terms The Crown in Right of [Province], Her Majesty in Right of [Province], and The Queen in Right of [Province] may also be used to refer to the entire executive of the government in each jurisdiction.. (wiki)

            Each province that has a premier and a cabinet is sovereign.

          • No Loraine they are not. That is absurd nonsense.

            No wonder you’re always so confused.

            “A confederation, in modern political terms, is usually limited to a permanent union of sovereign states for common action in relation to other states.[4] The closest entity in the world to a confederation at this time is the European Union. While the word “confederation” was officially used when
            the present Canadian federal system was established in 1867, the term is recognised to be a misnomer since Canadian provinces are not sovereign and do not claim to be. In the case of Switzerland, while the country
            is still officially called the Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica,
            Confédération suisse) is also a misnomer now since the Swiss cantons lost their sovereign status in 1848.”

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Federation#Confederation

          • No Loraine they are not. That is absurd nonsense.

            It’s not “absurd nonsense” Emily, it’s Grade 8 civics.

            “…each of Canada’s provinces are all sovereign of each other and the federal realm.[12][22] The sovereignty of the provinces is passed on not by the governor general or federal parliament, but through the overreaching Crown itself to the monarch’s viceregal representatives in the provinces,[23] the lieutenant governors, and the limitation that they act, in the Queen’s name, only on the advice of the relevant provincial ministers of the Crown or legislature.[12] The Supreme Court found in 1918 that provincial legislation cannot bind the federal Crown except “by express terms or necessary intendment”,[24] nor can the Queen in her federal council or parliament legislate for the provinces beyond the provisions of the constitution.[12] The provincial Crown “exists to safeguard the independence of each province”[25].

            Monarchy in the Canadian Provinces

            (ETA: Here‘s a webpage from the Saskatchewan government that mentions their co-sovereign status vis a vis the federal government, and here‘s one from B.C.)

          • Sorry, they aren’t sovereign and never have been.

            You guys are nutz.

          • I may be nuts Emily, but my post contains references to several books by Canadian scholars, and two provincial government websites, all pointing out the co-sovereign nature of Canada’s provinces.

            Your one piece of “evidence” to the contrary is an unsourced sentence in a Wikipedia entry.

          • And Norway is not a federation. “It is a unitary state with administrative subdivisions on two levels known as counties (fylke) and municipalities (kommuner).” (wiki) – The counties of Norway don’t have anywhere close to the powers of the provinces or states of federations!

            Switzerland is “is a federal republic consisting of 26 cantons, with Bern as the seat of the federal authorities.” (wiki)

          • I didn’t say it was….I said it was the number one country in the world EVEN WITHOUT A SENATE

            Our provinces have no power…and aren’t much better off than cantons or counties.

            Good thing neither of you are in govt…..Jeebus!

            And here I thought I was talking to the more intelligent crowd on here….Ciao bigtime!!

          • Our provinces have no power.

            Both the Constitution and the Supreme Court of Canada disagree.

          • No they don’t.

            You have no reading comprehension, and are arsing around as well.

            I know it’s TGIF….but I have no patience for this kind of nonsense.

            Ciao babe

          • Babe, you still are unable to name me a single democratic unicameral federal state, not because of a lack of patience for nonsense but because of a lack of a single democratic unicameral federal state. The nonsense is your claim that you know what one would look like.

          • To be fair, Emily’s contention that the world’s first unicameral federal state would rock has no less evidence than your contention that the world’s first unicameral federal state would be a disaster.

            That we can’t predict the future may be an argument for moving cautiously, but it’s not an argument for choosing X over Y.

          • I won’t post a bunch of links if you’ve checked out, but the Constitution explicitly enumerates the areas of sovereign jurisdiction of the provinces, and points out that the sovereignty of the provincial governments flows directly from the crown, not the federal government. Provincial governments are co-sovereign organs of the crown, not creatures of the federal government. It’s Canadian politics 101.

            Also, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled on more than one occasion that the federal government cannot interfere in the province’s exercise of their sovereign powers (and conversely, that the provinces cannot interfere in the federal government’s exercise of ITS sovereign powers).

            The simplest, and most telling illustration of the sovereignty of the provincial governments is that you can draw a line between each of the provincial legislatures and the SOVEREIGN without ever going through a federal official (not the case with the territories, which are not sovereign governments).

      • We consistently rank in the top ten of the most developed, most democratic states in the world. And we have been able to do this with the institutions we have had since 1867, and that includes an appointed Senate.

        I think you’re mixing up correlation with causation. We’ve always been successful with a Senate, therefore we must not get rid of the Senate??? It is possible that we’ve achieved our success over the years DESPITE the Senate, not because of it. Consider these (extreme) analogies:

        “We’ve had slavery since the beginning of the nation’s founding and we’ve always been highly successful. Every successful nation on earth has slaves. Why risk destroying the nation that we have?”

        “No other successful democracy on Earth allows women to vote. We’ve built a successful nation on this fundamental principle, why risk deviating from our peers and destroying our nation”.

        That the Senate has been around since our founding, and that we’ve been highly successful since our founding is no more an argument to not abolish the Senate, imho, than it is to not cure cancer (which is also found in every successful federation on Earth, and has been around since the founding of Canada).

        Now, I’m not a firebrand advocate of either abolition nor reform. I don’t get too excited about it either way (yeah, I kinda just suggested that the Senate is a cancer, but that was just rhetorical hyperbole to make a point). However, supporters of the Senate need a better argument than “We’ve always had it, and we’re doing fine”.

        Finally “Destroy the federation we have”??? OK, I get that you’re saying that if we got rid of the Senate, you argue that we’ll no longer be a “federation”. The obvious follow-up question is “So what?”.

      • You don’t seem to realize that Canada is a federation, and what it means. Canada is one of the, if not the, largest and most decentralized federal state in the world, with powerful provincial sovereign governments, with people of different languages, cultures, history. We recognize more than 100 nations in this federal state. Abolishing the Senate will not change Canada into a Denmark or Sweden unitary state.

        Abolishing the Senate won’t change us into Denmark or Sweden, no. However, you seem to be suggesting that abolishing the Senate will have some other (negative) impact on your description of us from the first sentence. How?

        Canada is one of the, if not the, largest and most decentralized federal state in the world, with powerful provincial sovereign governments, with people of different languages, cultures, history. We recognize more than 100 nations in this federal state.

        Beyond perhaps making us no longer fit the technical definition of “federal state” (and I think that’s debatable) how would getting rid of the Senate change any of that?

  2. Isn’t this an illustration of why referenda are a bad way of consulting the public on thorny issues? I’m not up on the ethics of the things, but even i can see it should probably continue on…and or..
    I suppose you could carry out at least three separate referenda on the fate of the senate? But then you might as well simply have the full and open debate in the first place.
    This question is simply designed to get Mr Segal the answer he most favours.

    • Segal favours keeping and reforming the Senate, as far as I can tell. Also, I believe he’s the Conservative who was appointed by Paul Martin, and almost won the PC leadership against Clark. He’s a smart guy, and one of the few remaining Conservatives whose views I can stomach. I am not sure I favour referendum because I honestly don’t think most Canadians have any idea of what the Senate does other than the occasional media scandal.

      • I don’t think senate supporters have any idea of what the senate does…

        • Ron, I agree with you. I also don’t think most Canadians know how electricity is generated, or how the phone works, but that doesn’t mean we should abolish them.

          • Here is what senators were doing on Thursday; be sure to read Hugh Segal’s sober second thought (ie smackdown) of the HoC’s union proposed union busting legislation — he’s clearly purporting what he thinks is best, and it has nothing to do with what his caucus wants him to do: http://www.parl.gc.ca/Content/Sen/Chamber/411/Debates/138db_2013-02-14-e.htm#40

          • Maybe Hugh should get a real job like a columnist or run for MP. Presently he doesn’t represent voters or taxpayers, therefore his opinion is unsolicited and useless.

          • Canadians need electricity, phones and Commons committees comprised of elected and accountable representatives to scrutinize legislation. They do not need appointed politicians fooling around with the business of government.

        • I don’t think senate supporters have any idea of what the senate does.

          I don’t think the vast majority of people on EITHER side of the debate have any idea of what the Senate does.

  3. One must be wary of referendums. In order for them to work, there have to be “Yes” and “No” campaigns. Like in a court room, the jury has to hear both sides of the story presented in persuasive arguments in order to come to an informed decision.

    A government can cement the status quo by limiting the conditions of the referendum (which is what was done with provincial PR mini-referendums.) If people find no compelling reason for change, they will opt for the “safe” choice.

    So be skeptical of senators wanting a referendum. They might be attempting to abort the movement to abolish the senate before it becomes popular among the people.

    • My only disagreement would be that I think that it’s quite plausible, perhaps even probable, that abolishing the Senate is ALREADY a quite popular idea among the people. While I understand your argument that people may automatically opt for the status quo as the “safe” choice (especially if not fully presented with arguments from both sides of the issue) I nevertheless wouldn’t discount the possibility that a very significant portion of the population, if presented with a straight up “Yes or No to Senate Abolition” question would consider “Yes” to be the “safe” option.

      • I think the senate would get slaughtered if there was a half-way decent “Yes” campaign. But one must not overlook human nature, which tends to cling to institutions and think it radical or revolutionary to challenge them.

        Presently only about 30% support abolition among many options. So a no-campaign weasel referendum has a real shot at producing fake justification for the senate’s existence.

  4. No we don’t! Throw all the leaches in jail!

    • Really? You’d throw people in jail for accepting a cushy but entirely legal (and constitutionally enshrined) federal appointment? What else would you jail people for? Claiming tax deductions?

  5. I’d like to see changes to the senate, without a doubt. But the idea of abolishing it scares the crap out of me.

    Unlike many other similar systems of government, Canada doesn’t historically tend to end up with minority governments. That means there is no balance when the (far more common) majority governments are elected. Essentially, if a majority government wants to do something, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from passing that law.

    As ineffectual as the senate can be, I have seen them throw bills back to the house to be re-written, and I have seen then defeat bills. Their purpose is justified, but we need a better system to select them and more oversight into their spending.

    • Mmm that would be the whole point of having a govt….to pass legislation and run the country.

    • Essentially, if a majority government wants to do something, there is absolutely nothing stopping them from passing that law.

      Well, yes, but if the government also controls a majority in the Senate (as is the case right now) there’s still precious little that can be done to stop the government from passing that law even with the Senate intact.

      I certainly agree though that many times the Senate has disagreed with the House in ways that made legislation significantly better, and occasionally the Senate has stopped or amended bad legislation from the House so well that one could legitimately say “Thank God the Senate was there to stop/fix that!”.

      • The government can only control the senate if the government decides who gets appointed to the Senate. That decision should be in the hands of the people of Canada who govern themselves by electing members in the house of commons. The nomination process should be changed, should involve the province where the seat is vacant, and submitted to a free vote in the commons.

        • All fair points, but I would point out that making all of those kinds of changes to the Senate would be much more complicated than abolishing the Senate (not that abolishing the Senate would be “easy” per se).

          Sometimes, to me, the “Don’t abolish the Senate, reform it” argument sound like the transit argument in Toronto when the mayor says “Don’t build LRT, we need subways”. I mean, sure, subways would be great, but no one has a plan to pay for them, they’ll take forever to get built, if we ever do it, and they’ll serve a significantly smaller fraction of the city once built than the alternative would. I think there’s a real risk that holding out for a reformed Senate rather than abolishing it is like holding out for subways rather than any alternative. It may sound good, but, practically speaking, it’s arguably a path that leads to doing NOTHING.

          • Abolishing the Senate is more like saying – we’ll bomb the subway lines, build no LRTs, and forbid access to city streets.
            Canada does not exist because of the will of the people but because of an existing pact concluded between states under conditions black on white, which include the existence of a Senate with seats apportioned to each province to balance, and to determine the basis of, rep-by-pop in the HoC. Abolishing the Senate is the end of Canada as a federal state. There is no such thing as a unicameral federal state.

          • OK, but the whole “bombing the subway”, and “forbidding access to city streets” analogy seems to me to suggest that Canada being a federal state is SO IMPORTANT the we simply must keep an expensive, unaccountable, dysfunctional upper chamber, the purpose of which is to represent a notion of “regional diversity” in Canada that is almost completely meaningless in the 21st century, and which for the most part Senators don’t even PRETEND to be representing.

            My subway/lrt analogy is based on the notion that in that debate everyone agrees that something needs to be done about public transit in Toronto and it’s just that some people had a realistic solution with a plan, while other people had a more “pie in the sky” notion of what to do, that might be a better solution in an ideal world but it’s not an ideal world (analogous to abolition vs. reform). Now, if you’re saying that we must reform the Senate rather than abolishing it because if we abolish it we’ll no longer be a “federation” (or at least, no longer look like any of the other federations on the planet) I suppose my response to that would be “who cares?”

    • “But the idea of abolishing it scares the crap out of me.”

      According to James Burke (“The Day the Universe Changed”,) people tend to cling to institutions and think it radical or revolutionary to challenge them.

      But the fact is, since the senate is not elected it has no democratic authority to prevent bills from getting legislated. This is a good thing, because most Canadians would not want a senate full of Conservatives preventing a future non-Conservative government from governing.

      The real problem is that Canada has an undemocratic voting system that awards unfettered power to minority parties. (Harper only got 40% of the vote last election.) Almost all developed countries have voting systems that ensure a majority of voters is represented in government.

      Both the NDP and Liberals support electoral reform. It is the best way to ensure there are actual checks and balances to our system (unlike the senate, which only provides an illusion.)

  6. If he wants the referendum before the reference because he thinks it would affect the court’s ruling (a thought I heard several years ago the last time both were being floated) he would be in for a rude shock regarding the role of the court. Normally I would just pass that over, except that it’s the kind of thing that a senator should know to justify their role.

  7. Hey. Let’s also get a referendum on “Do you think you should have to pay income tax? Yes or No.” That would have a clarity and an impact and a weight in our political discussions that none of the other discussions to date have had.

    • Nice point.

      That said, you surely can’t be suggesting that abolishing the Senate would have the kind of negative impact on the country that abolishing income taxes would. Nor do I think it’s anywhere NEAR as obvious that a majority of people would vote that we should abolish the Senate as it is that a majority of people would vote that they shouldn’t have to pay income taxes (nor do I think that it’s necessarily obvious that a majority of people would vote that they shouldn’t have to pay income taxes… I wouldn’t).

      You seem to be suggesting that Segal wants this referendum because it’s sure to result in the answer that he wants (i.e. that we should abolish the Senate). However, many people are arguing that Senator Segal is suggesting this because he thinks people will tend to vote for the status quo, and he wants to save his position.

  8. I hereby make a sincere apology to EmilyOne. My assertion, based on Jeffrey Simpson claim in the G&M this week that there is no democratic unicameral federal state on this planet, was wrong.

    Venezuela became a democratic unicameral federal state in 1999, when Hugo Chavez became president. I understand therefore that Venezuela is the model upon which EmilyOne and other abolitionists want to build the Canada of the future, and why the NPD is so keen on abolition.

    • That’s just silly.

      And if the first nation on Earth to abolish slavery had been a nation with an odious leader, and the abolition of slavery ended up ruining the country, would that have been an argument in favour of everyone else keeping slavery?

      I roll my eyes at the people who argue that a referendum vote on abolition would end in a “No” because people tend to cling fearfully to the status quo when presented with issues of change like this. I can never get my head around the notion that people would actually think “We’ve always had a Senate, therefore getting rid of the Senate would be bad” and base their judgement on that logic.

      And then I read a post like this.

      Anyway, I shall now cheerfully await the deluge of examples from other commenters of odious countries in which the executive branch appoints one of the nation’s legislative bodies from among said nation’s hand-picked elites.

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