Got Senate Reform if You Want It

One of the reasons I supported Harper’s decision to abandon the fixed election date and drop the writ was that I took semi-seriously the claim, floated by some Tory insiders, that the prime minister was keen to proceed with his plan to reform the Senate. Since Bill C-20 was’t really going anywhere, the idea was to call an election and gain a renewed mandate for Senate reform.

So much for that.

Still, perhaps expecting that Harper might actually make this election about something, the IRPP has released a timely paper on Senate reform by UBC researcher Campbell Sharman, Political Legitimacy for an Appointed Senate.

All other considerations aside, Sharman’s paper is an excellent sketch of the Senate-reform landscape.

As he points out, disagreement begins with conflicting assumptions about what the senate is for. Is it to represent the social and regional diversity of Canada, to serve as a body of legislative examination, oversight, and inquiry, or should its primary function be to act as a check on executive power?

Next, there are disputes over the goals of reform. Should the aim be to increase the chamber’s legitimacy, its partisan balance, or its effectiveness? Again, this will depend on where you stand on the question of what the senate is for.

Finally, what means should we use to achieve reform: direct election, indirect election, or reformed appointments? As Sharman ruefully notes, “to list these options is to reinforce the depressing circularity of debates about senate reform” in Canada.

It’s a long article, with a very good section on the relationship between power and legitimacy, and useful compare/contrast sections on the Australian Senate and the British House of Lords. The most immediately relevant might be the part where he argues that Harper’s approach to Senate reform might appear half-assed by design: it was never intended as a long-term program but as a short-term tactical device to confuse and discredit the opposition Liberals. Having succeeded quite nicely in that, it’s no surprise that Harper has lost interest.

Sharman concludes with a series of propositions that don’t lay out a roadmap for reform so much as point in some general directions:

– the primary purpose of the senate should be effective scrutiny of legislation
– reform is best achieved not through direct election but through an amended appointment process
– the Senate needs to lose its power of veto over legislation; it should be replaced by a power to impose only a substantial delay

Sharman concedes that this last would require a constitutional amendment, but says that an attempt must be made.

Although I have a stronger desire than does Sharman to maintain executive dominance of the House of Commons and of Parliament in general, his argument for reform is the most persuasive I’ve seen. The devil is in the details as always, though. As is the unhappy fact, as Peter Russell (I think) once observed, that constitutional reform is just one of those things that Canadians aren’t particularly good at.


After sleeping on it, I’m starting think that the most intriguing part of the paper is the material on pages 7-9, where Sharman traces the various relationships between power and legitimacy. He places various upper chambers on a 2×2 grid, with legitimacy on the x axis, power on the y. The US Senate is in the top left — high power, high legitimacy — as is the reformed Australian Senate. The reformed House of Lords is in the bottom left of the grid — high legitimacy, low power.

Sharman argued that the high/high quadrant is likely the only stable position for an upper house. Houses with high power but low legitimacy tend to be reformed, while those with low legitimacy and low power tend to be abolished. As currently constituted, the Canadian senate is high power and low legitimacy, up in the top right of the grid, which Sharman says is the most unstable position: The Canadian senate needs to either lose power or gain legitimacy; he suggests that we follow the British and do a bit of both, to put the Senate in the low-power/high legitimacy quadrant.

But perhaps there is another option. As many people have observed, much of the Senate’s power goes unused; knowing that it lacks legitimacy, the Red Chamber refrains from exercising its full constitutional authority. In a sense, it has moved itself down a quadrant, into the low-power/low legitimacy section. The threat, of course, is that the unused power remains there to be tapped, as when the Liberal senate opposed Mulroney over the GST.

In which case, maybe the best thing to do is simply abolish the sucker.

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