All the reasons to have a Senate

Defenders of the red chamber, summon your best rallying cries

Lamenting that the discussion around the Senate has been over-simplified, Dale Smith lays out all the reasons to keep our Senate.

The notion that the Senate is a stopgap against a “temporary dictatorship” is a fairly specious argument, but it cannot be denied that the Senate’s role of “sober second thought” is integral to its role. The sobriety, however, stems from its appointed nature, free from the populist excesses of the elected House that sometimes get the better of its judgement. That appointed nature allows it to speak “truth to power” to the elected officials without fear of retribution. The protection of minorities – a hallmark of liberal democracies – was built into the structure of the Senate rather than provincial interests…

The Senate’s appointed nature also allows for a greater diversity of backgrounds of its membership, as it can gather the voices of those who would never seek elected office otherwise, despite a history of accomplishment. This diversity of experience also lends to its role as a built-in “think tank” for government, where high-level policy can be explored and debated in an ongoing capacity with a permanent infrastructure in place to keep it cost-effective. When one considers that Senate reports are of consistently high quality, oftentimes higher than the reports of royal commissions without the costs associated with said commissions, and done in a cross-partisan manner, it produces results that the Commons is not able to, nor would be feasible coming from private sector think-tanks, the majority of whom are partisan by nature. As well, that same appointed nature and lengthy terms give Senators the ability to not only retain the institutional memory of Parliament, where there is a high turnover rate in the Commons, but it also allows it the luxury of long-term perspective, rather than one that is focused solely on the next electoral cycle. It also allows for greater continuity in joint committee work, such as the scrutiny of regulations, one of those technical and tedious areas where the Senate tends to do the “adult work” of Parliamentary oversight. These are yet more functions that cannot be replicated in the Commons.

This is a useful defence of the upper chamber and the argument for keeping the Senate might serve as a good starting point for the entire discussion. Believers in a Senate should muster their best arguments for the chamber and then we should proceed with a series of questions.

Do you consider these attributes to be necessary to our official system of governance? Do we need a Senate that fulfills these duties and qualities? Does the current Senate adequately fulfill those duties and qualities? If not, why not? And finally, crucially, on what basis can we justify maintaining a chamber that is populated entirely with individuals appointed by the Prime Minister?

Even if you say yes to each of the first three questions—and I don’t think I do—that last one is a doozy. Dale likens the appointing of senators to the appointing of judges, but I’m not sure that’s a fair comparison. First, there is a question of process. Second, there is a question of result. (And maybe there is a question of purview.) If there are questions to be asked about the individuals being appointed as federal judges—and I won’t pretend to know nearly enough about the legal system to begin to pretend to know whether there legitimately are—then that process needs to be reviewed. If there are questions to be asked about the individuals being appointed as senators—and I dare say there might be—then that process needs to be reviewed. But, ultimately, the answer can’t be, “Well, the Prime Minister should simply stop appointing partisan cronies whose appointments subject the Senate to questions about its existence.” So long as the appointment of senators is entirely at the whim of the Prime Minister, the appointments process will be philosophically problematic.

But there certainly needs to be a full and long discussion about the merits and utility of the Senate we presently have, the original purpose of the chamber, to what degree we absolutely require a second chamber and, if we do require one, what it should be like. And let us not be too limited by the idea that significant change is too difficult to achieve. Dream no little dream and all that.

(As to Dale’s suggestion that I drifted into myopia with my invoking of Norway, New Zealand, Sweden, Korea, Iceland and Denmark—all nations that seem to have avoided tyranny despite lacking bicameral legislatures—in this post, I would note in my defence that I was responding to a very specific concern: that to not have a senate is to invite dictatorship. The relative demographics of those countries and their applicability to the discussion of whether a senate is required is another discussion.)