A good day for democracy, maybe. - Macleans.ca

A good day for democracy, maybe.



A good day for democracy. Maybe.Today might turn out to have been a good day for Canadian democracy.

In the past, Senate appointments usually came one or two at a time. If you paused to think about them—to consider how yet another partisan patronage appointee was gaining real legislative power in your country without having to go through the trouble of running for office—you would be momentarily sickened and ashamed. But there would be little public comment, no real debate, and so you’d shrug and go about your business.

Maybe today was different, if only because of the sheer scale of the affront to democratic sensibilities. No fewer than 18 senators appointed all at once: that’s hard to swallow. And it’s tempting, almost beyond the point of resistance, to dwell upon the details. What are the minimum qualifications shared by this mixed bunch, beyond proven partisan loyalty and the promise of continued service to the party in power? What will each of them do to earn $130,400 of our money every year?

But resist torturing yourself with such thoughts. Instead, consider the good that might flow from Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision make these appointments. Up until now, many sincere advocates of Senate reform hoped Harper’s approach might work. They expected him to first succeed in establishing eight-year terms for senators, along with a mechanism whereby prime ministers would appoint senators who won “consultation” votes held in conjunction with federal or provincial elections. Over time and through attrition, our familiar upper chamber—a club of party servants collecting public funds until they reach age 75—would turn into a respectable democratic forum of provincial representatives serving limited terms.

Given its new legitimacy, this changed Senate would more frequently second-guess the House of Commons. It would take on more of the normal functions of a proper legislature. Pressure would inevitably build to complete the reform by clarifying the Senate’s new role and redressing the gross imbalances in its provincial representation. Provincial premiers would feel compelled to come to the table for the constitutional negotiations that would be required to make this long-awaited reordering of the federal Parliament finally happen.

This whole scheme, which has been called the incremental approach to Senate reform, has never appealed to me. It assumes far too much in advance—early strategic reform successes, followed by a positive evolution of the Senate’s culture, concluded by an unprecedented constitutional amendment process. Even if it all worked, who’s to say this change in the way we are governed is what Canadians would choose? There are other plausible options. Here’s one: abolish the Senate. The House would represent the people in their national government, the provincial legislatures would represent them as citizens of provinces. In effect, this is what we have now, and on the whole the system works pretty well.

Stephen Harper’s decision to give up so spectacularly on his pledge to appoint only senators who had won some sort of popular vote clarifies the situation. Senate reform has always proven nearly impossible to advance, frustrating many past reformers, and any steps in its direction will always be halting and uncertain. As long as the Senate remains unreformed, it will remain a disgracefully undemocratic institution, and making appointments to it will always hold irresistible allure to prime ministers seeking to reward their own.

Put these two facts together—reform is unlikely, the institution is unacceptable—and getting rid of the thing entirely looks like the best bet. Last fall, Senator Hugh Segal and NDP Leader Jack Layton independently proposed a referendum on abolishing the senate. Harper briefly seemed intrigued by the idea, mainly because he hoped to get his more sweeping reform concept on the ballot. Time to revisit that sound idea. Ask the people.

Filed under:

A good day for democracy, maybe.

  1. Undemocractic like judges you mean? How come I never hear anybody wailing about how judges interpret our laws but there’s never any democratic oversight about how they do it?

    Oh yeah, because it’s a stupid idea.

    Here’s a thought, elections don’t tell you a thing about the qualifications of a person, merely about their popularity.. hell, these days they don’t even tell you that since people get elected all the time based on the popularity of someone completely different.

    If we want a house of “sober second thought” it stands to reason to let the people who we elected go through and find candidates who can add significantly to the public discourse through their knowledge and judgement rather than people who sound good in a 30-second sound byte.

  2. The idea that constitutional negotiations would “invariably” be the result of Harpers’ senate reform seems somewhere between optimistic and risible.

    The idea that any such negotiations would be fruitful is simply ludicrous.

  3. That’s right. Elections have given us such luminaries as Polievre, Baird, Coderre, Anders, Guergis, Dhalla, Rodriguez, et al. Yes, taxpayers are really getting their money’s worth in the House, aren’t they, @ 150K a pop and more for the Ministers?

    Politics doesn’t attract the best and the brightest. It tends to attract the louder and the loudest.

    • Don’t forget Dion, Fry, Wilson, Volpe, Sgro, Iggy, Easter, Goodale, etc…

  4. Reform or abolition are both fine. I think the senate could perform a useful function if it were granted legitimacy with provincial elections. However, in its current form, it is useless and in fact obtructionary, so I’d behappy to see it disappear.

    • can you substantiate the obstructionary comment?

      • Brad: It’s obstructionary in the following sense.

        Appointments made decades ago are affecting the legislation enacted by MPs elected today. So it is frozen in time. Even if 80% of the population voted for a new party from this moment onwards, they would be subject to the whims of the Liberals are Progressive Conservatives of years past.

        If we applied this same idea to the musical world, disco artists would still be winning all the grammies.

        8 year term limits would fix this problem.

        • Seriously – what legislation, aside from a number of woefully inadequate bills which were send back with amendments, can be described as obstructionist bevhaviour? The Senate has arguably never been more effective at picking up glaring mistakes in poorly drafted bills as in the recent months. Besides, what moral authority does a guy who prorogues Parliament after doing zilch and out of fear of a pending vote have to level the accusation of obstructionism?

          • I’m not sure what argument you are making, make up your mind.

            You can either argue that they do in fact affect legislation, which bolsters my argument.

            Or you can argue that they do not, in which case, why the heck are they there?

            And then you go on some sort of ridiculous tangent about progrogue, whatever.

          • (to response below) I’m saying that sending a bill back because it’s riddled with mistakes so that the house can amend it (which it then willingly does) is hardly an example of obstructionism. That’s the Senate, functioning as it should.

    • Yeah, sf, don’t you want somebody actually reviewing legislation before it goes into effect?

      • It depends upon who’s doing the reviewing. If the reviewing is being done in a manner that is somewhat democratic, then sure. If it’s a bunch of appointed partisans that have never answered to anyone, then no. Elections grant legitimacy.

        Bill Buckley famously observed that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book than the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.

        • The point is that your cherished MP’s aren’t doing their job, sf.

          Bill Buckley is famously an idiot. If you believed his dictum, you’d call up someone at random and ask for their wisdom instead of listening to his “qualified” opinion.

          • You’re right. I’m wrong. Now please take your partisan ad-hominem attack elsewhere.

          • I’m not partisan, and my attack was not ad hominem. But then perhaps you prefer the first 2000 words in the dictionary to looking up ones you don’t know before you use them.

          • Geezus Jack, take a valium, or a bath, or see a therapist.

            I’m giving my opinion about the senate and you want to turn it into an attack on “my MPs” and whomever you want to label as an idiot (again). Is everything you do a partisan attack? You say you’re not attacking ad-hominem, and then you talk about whether I know the definition of words. Do you even listen to yourself? As soon as you stop talking about the topic, and you start talking about the person making the argument, it’s ad hominem. That’s latin for “towards the person”.

            I’m talking about the senate, and my opinions about it. It’s not even partisan, the NDP want to abolish it and the Conservatives want to reform it. I’m saying either is fine.

            Next thing I know, the leftist attack dogs Jack and Richard are firing off their Conservative jabs and Harper hatred (yes, now I’ve stooped to your ad-hominem level). Are you guys robots or do you actually say something new once in a while?

          • Actually I just got out of the bath, sf.

            Clearly you were upholding the House as a better purveyor of legislation than the Senate; whence “your” MP’s. I wouldn’t like to be governed by the Harvard faculty either, but the way Buckley expresses it is just a confrontational populist FU. You tell me I’m a partisan hack and I answer more wittily; so I initiated an ad hominem attack? Give me a break.

            Only in a knee-jerk Know Nothing mental atmosphere could defending the Senate — which, you’ll note, was just re-stacked by St. Stephen — be construed as a partisan attack. What do you know of my politics, sf? Clearly more than I do, since I’m not in favour of any of our political parties at present.

            What I object to is the with-us-or-against-us attitude that you’ve chosen to place on your shoulder and dare us to knock off. It’s that attitude that has simply spoiled Canadian politics for a generation, but if you think moderates like me are going to go quietly you’ve got another thing coming.

  5. The US elects many of their judges and it is a mess. What the senate needs is a leader who will take up the standards by several notches.

  6. The senate has no political legitimacy, for the same reason that the Lib-NDP-Bloc coalition has no political legitimacy, because it is unelected.

    However until it is fundamentally reformed or abolished, it continues to be part of the body politic, anatomically as important to the body politic as the appendix is to the human body. It if ever decides to act up, as the appendix sometimes does, it should be promptly removed.

    • Jarrid, I would like to know, based on your premise, what does have plitical legitimacy? A guy with 38% support, who has a minority in the House, who won’t allow his Ministers to speak in public, who keeps his cabinet meetings secret, who denies access to the media, and prorogues to avoid a vote? Is that the only form of political legitimacy in your view?

      • DId you speak up against the Chretien 38% majority, with at least as much centralised power in the PMO. If not then keep quiet.

  7. In order to be a chamber of sober second thought the Senate has to have non renewable terms.
    We need this body to act as a safeguard against populists in the elected ones.Someone has to be able to tell the government “This bill is horribly written.” or “This will never survive a court challenge.”.

  8. Well, Harper just appointed to Senate failed Conservative candidates who couldn’t get elected a couple months ago, so obviously, Harper doesn’t think Senators should be elected.

    I happen to agree with Harper on that one, although I think he should have found more qualified candidates than Duffy, Greene, Brazeau, and others.

  9. My understanding is that you can’t abolish the Senate without amending the constitution. And you can’t let it rot away either, since Senate approval is formally needed to pass legislation through Parliament.

    Until Conservatives get enough Senators to pass reform, maybe the best bet is to follow Alberta’s lead and start electing your own, which is the path that Saskatchewan is following, and which I believe British Columbia is seriously considering.

    I, for one, am not afraid of more democracy in Canada.

    • The best thing about the Senate is that it seems to dilute political partisanship – the very thing that is poisoning the Commons under the current regime. Senate elections would increase the level partisanship and render the process even less effective than it is now.

      If you regard rep by pop as an important ingredient for democracy, the Constitution rules that out for the Senate. Reform of that aspect is not going to happen unless you think it would be good to revisit the glory days of Meech and Charlottetown. Just what we need these days.

      I find it useful to compare the behaviour and effectiveness of Senate committees and the current generation of Commons committees. The grown-ups are in the Senate.

      • couldn’t agree more. Another partisan, elected and rival house is all we need. I’m no expert but doesn’t Germany deal with this effectively, however they don’t have our regional diversity and they have PR. Speaking of which, does PR offer any solutions?

        • A better model might be Australia’s Senate, which is selected using the single transferable vote system. Basically, the district has a certain number of seats (let’s just go with six). On election day, the voter ranks her choices for those six seats. You then go through and count up all of the 1 votes and drop off the candidate who has the lowest number of votes. Any voter who selected that candidate then has her vote shifted to her #2 choice. You keep doing this until there are only six candidates left. The end result is almost always basically proportional to the party vote, but you have the benefits of voting for candidates. Under present circumstances, I would guess you would end up with 3 Tories, 2 Libs, and 1 NDPer or maybe 2 Tories, 2 Libs, 1 NDP, and 1 Green.

          This system would probably work pretty well for some of the provinces with smaller Senate delegations, but you would probably have to break down Ontario and Quebec into four sets of six seats. If Nova Scotia and New Brunswick kept 10 seats each, they would probably need to have two sets of five.

  10. i would have thought the fact that the senate has not been particularly obstructionist over the yrs corresponds directly with the fact that it is unelected ; a fact that senators are well aware of. Not by any means ideal, of course. But does an elected senate not come with its own problems.

  11. It seems to me that today’s politics is all about gathering as many votes as possible. Which is inherent to democracy. However, it does not allow much room for political leadership. Sometimes tough decisions have to be made, and people are going to be disappointed, and in today highly connected world, cries of outrage appear on a daily basis because of very trivial (or unavoidable) things. Elected politicians are (or should be) torn between what will be popular, and what will be the best for Canada as a whole. At least an unelected Senate does not have that worry, they (in principal) only have to worry about the best for Canada and Canadians as a whole. Senators also don’t have to worry about party-ties! Who is going to fire them? They can discuss and vote with a clear mind and heart. I amy be a bit idealistic, but what are the options? Of interest; in The Netherlands the Senate is elected by the provincial MLA’s. A hybrid could do the tric.

  12. That was one of the reasons I would agree with a coalition. To get rid of this PM who can’t keep his word and no one seems to care. He’s not George Bush dangerous, but he’s dangerous to democracy and governance.

  13. Fight Fire With Fire

    The Liberals have stacked the senate in their favor and they rely on this undemocratic body to interfere with legislation which has passed in the House of Commons. Well, two can play that game.

    • First the libs have made the Hoc dysfunctional, now they’ve stacked the senate in ordr to interfere. It must be nice to see the world in such black and white terms. What’s harpers next challenge, reforming the GG, obviously that’s dysfuntional too!

  14. Well, at least you have to love the Conservative rationale, “the ends(senate reform) justify the means (pork barrel patronage at its best)”

    I can’t wait to hear Harper protesting, “I, I had no option, I had no option, I had to make those stinky patronage appointments”………

  15. Harper will increase the HoC by some 30 plus seats already. We have more elected reps than we know what to do with, particularly when you consider that parliament has been opened only thirteen days in the past seven months. What’s the point of having all these elected and appointed parliamentarians when the doors are closed? Throwing money around again, Harper? By how much will he exceed his spending estimates this time!!!

    I would much prefer Senators to be chosen by free votes from our MPs = more democratic, less partisan and it would not cost money. But things that don’t cost money and don’t bring Canada into historically high spending don’t appeal to these (in name only) Conservatives.

    • Maybe the 30 extra MP’s will be a special new kind able to speak when in government, actually govern when in cabinet, and answer a question when they are in the House of Commons.

  16. A military leader would perfeclty understand Harper’s tactics. He has tried a frontal assault to achieve Senate reform and been repulsed by the entrenched Liberal majority. Now he is trying a flanking movement.

    Another benefit — there is no room now to put Lizzie May in the Senate in the unlikely event that the buck ninety-five coalition takes power.

  17. I am really looking forward to hearing, say a year from now, from these newly-appointed senators about their activities in the Senate. Will they:

    a) use their new position to reinforce the notion that the Senate is useless by claiming they sat around and did nothing


    Will they claim that their work is useful to Canadians because they
    b) keep very busy with committee work, etc.

    Can’t wait to read it in Maclean’s !

  18. Real Senate reform just ain’t gonna happen. The provinces will never agree, especially Ontario and Quebec, PEI, New Brunswick, etc. It’s a Western fantasy, and it is all just an attempt to keep you party stalwarts distracted while your boy out-Liberals the Liberals.


    Not when our democracy is at stake.

    See my YouTube Channel for details.

  20. All this rhetoric; bleh. It’s simple, really. An enormous waste of taxpayer money. In these times, how can anyone justify that? Sometimes, reading these forums can dull the mind. Some of you need a hobby.

  21. Senator Manning II was very non-committal today when asked today to commit to resigning after his “eight-year term” is up.

    Very, very non-committal.

  22. What matters is what Manning and the others say eight years from now. None of them have to resign then, as they are entitled to stay until age 75. Harper has simply brought the usual political promises of MPs to Senate. Harper breaks most of his own promises. We’ll see how many of the 18 do better than Harper.

    • Call me old-fashioned, but what I think they say today matters, too.

  23. Just a couple of thoughts on the Senate. It does currently serve an important function. Senators (at least the ones who take their jobs seriously and show up from time to time) have been doing what they do for longer than a lot of politicians, and don’t need to spend all the time dealing with the public & keeping elected that MP’s do. Very often they find mistakes in legislation that were missed by the lower chamber, make recommendations, & send it back to the H of C, avoiding lengthy & expensive court battles. They also spend a lot of time on Senate committees, which, since they don’t have to worry about elections, tend to be less partisan, & again the experience helps. That evil Liberal partisan Senate has approved all legislation passed by the current government.

    I’d be in favour of allowing elected provincial premiers to make recommendations to the PM on Senate appointments on a pre-determined number (preferably a majority) of seats. This allows for a regional & political diversity in the upper chamber, but avoids the cost of elections. It also doesn’t need any constitutional wrangling, just a setting of a precedent. Premiers would still have the option of holding elections for their nominations. But I’m against limited terms. That would give the ruling party more power than the fathers of confederation intended them to have. If you have sinecure, you don’t need to be partisan. They’re supposed to be the House of Sober Second Thought. We don’t need both chambers to be the House of Rowdy Drunken Antics.

  24. Let me see now if I have this right:
    The conservatives want to govern without any opposition….or at least if there is any, they must tow the conservative line and shut their mouths. What part/definition of democracy does that implicate. A government in power with support from only 38 % of the electoral vote, in a minority government, gee don’t you think that their ambitions are a little bit lofty?

    Senate reform a la conservative ideology …senators should be an elected body.
    Seems to me that Barrack Obama had it right “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it is still a pig”…..I would be more impressed if all members of the PMO were elected as opposed to one elected person (PM) running the country with a bunch of unelected advisors and policy makers.

    To those that despise Liberals…what is it about liberalism that is so despicable? We live arguably in the best country in the world. If Liberals were in power so inadequately in this country for so long ( in power for 50 out of 75 years or something like that) then why is our quality of life among the best in the world?

  25. The problem with being Liberal is that is an invalid a priori : it is based upon the assumption that the solution to a problem lies with the governement … which in point of well established fact and proven time and time again has been shown to be invalid. More often than not a government program is not the solution to any given problem but a factor in the problem itself.