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The worst reason for having a Senate

On the ‘dictatorship’ that would befall us if the red chamber didn’t exist


 

This story about the possibility of abolishing the Senate uses the phrase “dictatorship” three times and notes that “tellingly, many of the world’s unicameral legislatures have existed in communist states, such as China, Cuba and former members of the Warsaw Pact.”

Here is the fear.

A Canada without a Senate, after all, would be a Canada in which any majority government would essentially be a temporary dictatorship.

“One of the oddities in this debate is people who are constantly complaining about the dictatorial tendencies of the Prime Minister, yet are trying to abolish the one institution that could counterbalance him,” said Tom Flanagan, a distinguished fellow in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

Former senator Bert Brown expressed similar concerns earlier this year and, come to think of it, we are surely lucky to have made it this far with only the Senate standing between us and tyranny. Never mind abolishing or reforming the Senate, we should be thinking now about how quickly we can move to add a third or fourth chamber to the mix.

Or perhaps the relative weakness of the House does not justify the existence of a Senate. Or, put another way, perhaps the answer to the relative weakness of the House is not to maintain a Senate to act as a check on it.

China does indeed have a unicameral legislature. So maybe we’d all become communists if we abolished the Senate. But maybe we’d become Norway (1st on the UN’s human development index), New Zealand (6th), Sweden (7th), Korea (12th), Iceland (13th) or Denmark (15th). Or perhaps we’d become like any of our own ten provinces, each of which has so far managed to continue holding free and fair elections despite not having more than one legislative chamber.

Maybe the Senate is, or could be, a worthwhile guard of our democratic order. Regardless, the answer to the problem of the current state of the House of Commons is not to maintain another chamber that can act as a check on it. There are various reasons—persuasive or not—to have a Senate and there might be a discussion to be had about how well the Senate has served as a check on the system over the last 20 years, but the weakness of the House of Commons is specifically and primarily a reason to strengthen the House of Commons. That the House isn’t what it should be is nearly beyond dispute. But there are various ways in which it might be fixed, or at least improved, none of which require a constitutional amendment or consultation with the provinces. There are approximately 250 people (the population of the House of Commons minus cabinet and parliamentary secretaries) who should be acting as a check on the government. In 2015, that number will increase to something like 280. Properly empowered and properly expected to exercise that power, they might amount to the sort of horde that could properly save us from tyranny on their own.

All of which is to say that if the House of Commons is not acting as a proper counterbalance, that’s a matter for the House of Commons.


 

The worst reason for having a Senate

    • A better-stated column from the Toronto Star written by someone without a vested interest:

      “As it operates now, the Senate is a costly, useless and undemocratic joke, with little real power. … But to retain the Senate – elected or unelected – as a high-paid debating society or research institution is ridiculous.”

      Toronto Star: Bob Hepburn: Abolish the Senate instead of trying to reform it
      http://www.thestar.com/opinion/2010/01/28/abolish_the_senate_instead_of_trying_to_reform_it.html

      • Far from a better-stated column – and Senator McCoy has no vested interest – Hepburn is merely exercising old prejudices and entertaining tired arguments.

        • Perhaps you should Google “vested interest”.

          Hepburn is right on the money. What’s getting tiring is the lame excuses senate worshipers come up with to justify its existence.

          No doubt it’s human nature to desperately cling to institutions. But if we didn’t get rid of the bad ones we’d make no progress. (Let me guess: you prefer monarchy to democracy too…)

  1. Agreed. I don’t know where the idea that a bunch of old fogeys usually alternatively either snoring or lining their pockets were some kind of knights of the round table protecting us from communism or summat, came from…..but it’s absurd.

    The Senate is just another historical left-over from Britain

    Abolish it,

  2. Aaron, got your talking points together for the latest on Mac Harb? Seems this latest news has escaped you? Apparently his “home” he was claiming was uninhabitable? Was it a Sea-Can or something? You know, as sleazy as the Conservatives have been, leave it up to Liberals to top them EVERY time!

    • when the liberals start stonewalling investigations and cutting illegal cheques to cover improper campaign expenses, then they will equal (not TOP) the cpc.

      Harb has done wrong, absolutely, and should be forced to repay the money with interest and a penalty. But there’s a good chance that some CPCers should be in jail.

  3. Again, the point is missed.

    The House of Commons cannot, is *incapable of* acting as a proper counter-balance of the House of Commons.

    Why? Because the system is weighted toward short-term concerns. Any MP who chooses to value long-term concerns over short-terms concerns won’t be there to guard those concerns over the long term. They’ll be ousted by the MP who can promise benefits in the short-term.

    The other part is that the House is concerned about elect-ability. Doing what makes you popular, rather than doing what is right. When we’re lucky, those things coincide.

    The senate, on the other hand, is long-term, and has no concerns over elect-ability. This, of course, gives it its own problems, as we’re seeing now. But what it also does is serve as a possible balance over the tendencies of the House toward short-term popular policies. Personally, I believe that all we really need to shape our senate up is some form of accountability. To be specific, just giving the citizens the ability to recall a single senator every general election is all I think that would be needed to end most of the current excesses of the senate that we are seeing.

    • Senate supporters tend to create their own reasons for why the senate exists. (The real reason is to provide regional representation at a federal level.) This is another one: the senate looks out for long-term concerns; the House, short-term concerns.

      It’s all nonsense. Appointing partisan cronies for life does absolutely nothing to give Parliament a long-term view on legislation. This corrupt process means senators represent the interest of political parties, not the provinces (or the future.)

      Take Mulroney’s forward-looking goals of free trade and the value-added tax (GST.) Liberal senators played politics trying to score points by thwarting the legislation. Today these are policies the Liberal party wholeheartedly supports.

      There are no examples of the senate looking out for the long-term concerns of the country. Appointing politicians is a bad idea. (In a democracy, politicians are elected by the people, for the people.) Appointing politicians for life, a worse idea.

      • Really? None at all? No union transparency bills or anything? Man.. it must suck to live in your world.

        Fortunately, the rest of us live in the real world.

        • So you agree with the wisdom of the senate when it killed an environmental bill passed by the democratic House of Commons?

          Where was the senate when Harper was passing phonebook-sized omnibus bills that should’ve been broken up?

          Looks like they were just trying to make themselves look busy after all the flak they are receiving from the senate expense scandal…

          Of course, people who want an appointed senate say the benefit is appointed senators have no right to kill legislation. (If we elect senators government will supposedly seize up due to gridlock, although every developed country that has a senate has elected senators…) So what happens if we end up with a more active and obstinate senate when the Liberals or NDP form the next government?

          The senate is a mess. It has the same power as the House but senators are not supposed to use it on a gentlemen’s agreement. There are no rules for when they are supposed to step in. It’s erratic and useless:

          “It is intolerable that that power should be exercised by any but those the people choose. If senators would like to be proper rather than pretend legislators, let them get themselves elected.”

          Andrew Coyne: Senate’s defiance over union bill was brave, principled and completely wrong
          http://fullcomment.nationalpost.com/2013/06/28/andrew-coyne-senates-defiance-over-union-bill-was-brave-principled-and-completely-wrong/

  4. I understand where you’re coming from in this post, but all those countries you listed, except perhaps Korea, have another similarity, they have, for the most part, homogeneous society. Sweden and Norway were once unified but then split and then created systems of governance accordingly. Canada’s decentralised cultural institutions make it difficult to implement a unicameral system without some regional, political, equalization. A rep-by-pop HoC cannot, by its nature, allow for a regional balance. While the house most definitely needs reform, in order to meet the requirements of governance many Canadians need (pop & regional), any single chamber would have to strive to work as both, in essence operating as a bicameral system.
    I believe there is enough leeway in the current constitution to make the second chamber accountable. The senate is and independent body, sovereign from the commons. Any prime minister who believes that they can control it is fooling themselves. If the Senate believes it still has a place in Canadian democracy then it must take steps to show the people of Canada that it is. Begin by governing themselves as though it were electable by passing senate rules which requires them to surrender their seat every 9 years, and ask the PM of the day to stay on. Start a 9 year cycle of renewal, then once that is in place, put forth a constitutional amendment setting seven year terms and elections of one third of the chamber every three years to coincide with municipal elections. A motion like that should not find it difficult to get the required 7/50 requirement.

  5. 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.

  6. Three reasons for having a senate:

    1) It’s the only thing standing in the way of “tyranny” (the unfettered power awarded minority parties via our undemocratic First-Past-the-Post voting system.)

    2) It provides representation for the provinces at a federal level.

    3) It ensures “sober second thought” (i.e. proper review of legislation.)

    Three reasons for getting rid of the senate:

    1) It does not insulate us from a “benign dictatorship” (Stephen Harper.) The unelected senate is either a hallowed hindrance to democratic government or an ornamental rubber stamp. All depends on which party has unethically stacked it to a majority.

    2) It provides absolutely no representation for the provinces. Senators are appointed by a federal PM and whipped by federal party leaders in the House of Commons.

    3) Doesn’t ensure “sober second thought.” The real work of reviewing legislation is done in Commons committees by elected MPs. The senate is a clunky fifth wheel. If we make Canada a real democracy with Preferential Voting (ranked ballot) as the Liberals propose, minority parties will no longer have the absolute corrupt power to bully committees.

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