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.