Our upper house of ill repute - Macleans.ca

Our upper house of ill repute

Andrew Coyne on why the Senate is intolerable

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Our upper house of ill repute

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The Senate is Confederation’s original sin, the great stain on the fathers’ handiwork, from which much greater evils have flowed. Structurally, it has contributed to the divisions and weaknesses that have bedevilled the federation. Without some constitutionally appropriate vehicle for expressing the concerns of the regions in federal politics, it has been left to the premiers, inappropriately, to do the job.

Worse, however, has been its corrosive effects, compounded over time, on our political ethics. It is of course intolerable that a free people should be governed, even in part, by those to whom they did not expressly grant such power. That would be true even if the Senate were filled with Solomons, and not the bizarre cargo of bagmen, strategists, failed candidates, criminals, cranks and other political problems that prime ministers have traditionally solved by the expedient of the Other Place.

Yes, some senators do good work. Committees of the Senate often produce thoughtful reports. But they have no more democratic right to translate their views into law, to move, amend, pass or reject bills and otherwise exercise the powers of legislators than I do. Though by convention the Senate’s powers are less than they appear on paper, they are still more than any patronage house should rightfully have, and have been exceeded on more than one occasion.

So it’s wrong: wrong in principle, and decidedly wrong in its sordid Canadian practice. What is more, we all know it’s wrong, and have known it from the start. And yet there it was, staring us in the face every day: a bordello, where one of our two legislative houses should have stood. As with certain other sins to which we have accommodated ourselves (our 50-year indulgence of separatism comes to mind), it made us more tolerant of the intolerable generally. After all, if such blatant corruption—let’s call it what it is—could be carried on in full view of the public, again and again, without kicking up more than a token amount of fuss, what else could the public be persuaded to accept?

Quite a lot, it turned out. If you want to know why our politics are so peculiarly amoral, so entirely uninterested in priniciple, so pliable, I suggest you start with the effects of 144 years of bending ourselves around the Senate. It was, to be frank, shaming, but since people can’t live with shame, we became cynical instead. Can’t be helped, we shrugged. No way to change it. And so instead it changed us.

All of which is a prologue to the current attempt at Senate reform. Though the critics have made no conspicuous proposals to reform the Senate themselves, they are full of reasons why this plan cannot possibly succeed. The provinces might not agree to elect their senators. The prime minister might not appoint those they did. Worse, he might—and then where would we be: with a Senate half-elected, and half-appointed?

Inspired by the legitimacy a democratic mandate confers, elected senators might begin to exercise real legislative power, based purely on the present haphazard allotment of seats, in which New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have more senators than British Columbia or Alberta. Why, it would be a mess, that’s what it would be. And—the capper—to what end? The public is not demanding this. There is no crisis to be averted. What on Earth could Stephen Harper be thinking, to wander into such a thicket?

Well, yes. And yes and yes and yes. There is no crisis. The public is not clamouring for the Senate to be fixed. There is no momentum for reform, and the Prime Minister’s proposals would almost certainly end in chaos. Perhaps that’s the point.

The status quo of an appointed house is, remember, intolerable. And yet we have all learned to tolerate it, precisely because it is the status quo. But a half-elected, half-appointed Senate, a Senate beginning to use its powers notwithstanding its lopsided distribution, would be something entirely new. Then it would not just be intolerable: we would not tolerate it. Then it really would be a crisis, one that the country would have no choice but to deal with.

Either, that is, the winner of the last three elections has entirely lost his mind, and is pursuing this mad adventure without any strategy for achieving it. Or he’s up to something. The alternatives the critics propose—either “do it properly,” with a round of negotiations among the premiers and a constitutional amendment, or “just abolish it”—are no less unrealistic, since they do not suggest how this process could even get under way, let alone be completed.

I realize I am in danger of enrolling in the “he’s playing chess, while they’re playing checkers” school on Harper. But his previous prime ministerial missteps were either quickly abandoned, as with the national anthem, or had some obvious political upside, as with prorogation, that might at least explain, if not justify, his actions. (The long-form census fiasco remains, I concede, a puzzle.)

The absence of a clear payoff to Senate reform, and yet his sustained and deliberate pursuit of it, suggests something else is at work. Perhaps he is attempting, as the Leninists would say, to advance the crisis, to make the intolerable no longer tolerated, to force us to confront what we have all grown rather too used to ignoring.