C-377, the NDP, the PMO and the future of the Senate

Seriously though, what should we do with the red chamber?

The amending of C-377 continues to reverberate.

The Broadbent Institute tweets, seemingly in response to this post, while Greg Fingas posits one reading of the situation.

To start with, for all the talk about the single amendment by Hugh Segal “gutting” C-377, the fact is that the bill remains live, well and set to be reconsidered (and potentially pushed through again in its original form) by the House of Commons. Which makes for a stark contrast to how Harper’s trained seals in the Senate trashed previous legislation which had been approved by Canada’s actual elected representatives – voting it down altogether rather than amending it for reconsideration.

If the best case to be made for the Senate’s continued existence is as a check on the out-of-control executive, then, the Senate’s actions under Harper suggest that it’s broadly failing in that role – and the improvements to C-377 make at best a minor dent in the overall impression.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal—appointed by Paul Martin—talks to John Ivison and sounds a bit like Brent Rathgeber in explaining how a government is best served.

Mr. Segal said the notion that senators used the amendment as a means of sending a message to the PMO was reading too much into it. “I didn’t get any sense of that.” He disputed the suggestion by some Conservative caucus members that the senators were being disloyal by sending the bill back to the House. “Most of us consider ourselves loyal Conservatives. Sometimes the most loyal thing you can do is protect the Prime Minister from bad legislation,” he said.

Conservative Senator Richard Neufeld—appointed by Stephen Harper—explains how he understands his role.

“I appreciate that he appointed me, but the Senate has a job to do and that job is to review legislation, and if there are things of concern to the Senate, we are to bring it to the government’s attention,” Neufeld told The Vancouver Sun. “I’m just doing the job I was appointed to do. I wasn’t appointed just to rubber-stamp everything. I don’t believe that.”

That said, Senator Neufeld says that if the House of Commons returns the bill to the Senate without the amendments, he would feel obligated at that point to defer to the elected chamber.

Senator Neufeld is part of the Senate Class of December 2008. In July 2010, he suggested he wasn’t sure about moving to an elected Senate before clarifying that he would support the government’s reforms.

Though it’s heartening to see independent thought and legislative rigour, I still basically think we could do without a Senate and that an elected Senate might create more problems than it solves. Is there some kind of way an appointed Senate could be unobjectionable? Is there a compromise here? There is the House of Lords model. If we were starting entirely from scratch, I can imagine something like two or three senators from each province and one from each territory, nominated by an independent advisory body, with the power to review legislation passed by the House of Commons and study issues of public policy. Would they be able to initiate their own legislation? Would this Senate’s agreement be required to pass legislation? Would anyone want to serve on this Senate? It would be lovely if it would be as small and as non-partisan and as limited in power as possible. The sober second thought without any of the other characteristics that make the Senate so problematic in a modern democracy.

I can almost see the sense in something like that. But then, I think I’d still generally prefer that the goal be greater independence for MPs, greater power and responsibility for House committees and, with an empowered House of Commons, an end to the Senate.