Q&A: Manitoba Justice Minister Andrew Swan on abolishing the Senate

'We think the best approach is simply to get rid of a very outmoded, ancient institution'

Yesterday, the Manitoba government filed its factum with the Supreme Court in regards to the federal government’s Senate reference—hearings on the Senate reference are due to be held in November. Today, I chatted by phone with Andrew Swan, justice minister for Manitoba’s NDP government. The following transcript has been edited and condensed.

Q. First of all, there are obviously arguments in favour of the Senate: the idea that it provides for provincial representation, it represents other communities, it acts as a check on the House, it can participate in serious policy discussion and review any potential problems with legislation. Do you or the Manitoba government see any credence in any of those arguments?

A. Well, first of all, I know some have said, well, it supports regions. Look, I’ve been an MLA now for nine years, I’ve been interested in politics all my life. I, frankly, cannot remember a senator appointed from Manitoba actually standing up and speaking clearly on an issue of importance to Manitoba or Manitobans. You know, I campaign, I’m out there every four years, but I’m also out there knocking on doors between elections in my own area and elsewhere in the province. I don’t recall ever having a Manitoba senator come to my door to say, Hi, I’m a senator for your province, how are we doing? What issues are important to you? I’m willing to bet there’s not a single Canadian that has that kind of experience, where a senator has felt any kind of responsibility to actually be among the people of the province they represent and getting that kind of direct input.

I will give the Senate some credit. They sometimes are able to study bills, sometimes there are sunset clauses and they review how a bill has worked, there is some utility in that. But, you know, there are over 300 members of Parliament. I really think that the House of Commons could easily fulfill that role. And maybe it would be a useful way for backbenchers of all parties more of a chance to be able to engage in a maybe a more thoughtful process of looking at legislation than maybe is the case now.

Q. The counter offer would be, what about an elected Senate?

A. Yeah, that is our distant second choice. In Bill 22, back in 2006, the Manitoba legislature unanimously, with Progressive Conservatives and Liberals being part of that, expressed clearly that our first choice is to abolish the Senate. If that’s not possible, we would see an elected Senate as being a distant second choice. It’s certainly better than what we have now. But we think the best approach is simply to get rid of a very outmoded, ancient institution.

Q. One of the things I found interesting about the submission that Manitoba made was that on the one hand you’re arguing for abolition, but in your submission to the Supreme Court you go ahead and say that would require unanimous approval of the provinces.

A. That’s right, because abolishing the Senate, we acknowledge, is a substantial change to the Constitution, it’s a substantial change to the way we do things. And that would require all provinces to be onside. But that’s not insurmountable. And we call on the federal government, which brought the reference to the Supreme Court, which we think is a reasonable and appropriate thing to do—if that is what the Supreme Court agrees, we expect the federal government then to being those discussions.

Q. Do you think this can be hashed out in a discussion among provinces? Especially if it takes unanimous approval. You say it’s not insurmountable, but it has been presented as there’s no way that will ever happen.

A. I think the important thing is that Canadians, wherever they live, whatever province, whatever territory they’re in—it’s hard to find Canadians these days, in fact it’s been hard to find Canadians for a long time, that have respect for the Senate, that believe the Senate still has a modern day purpose. And the power of the people is quite something. I believe that if legislators across the country do their job and listen to people, they will find that a wide majority of Canadians in all parts of the country believe that the Senate is passed its best before date. We have matured as a country. We have provincial governments that are quite able to stand up and represent the interests of their provinces. We have territorial governments that are quite able to reflect the wishes and speak for those regions, in a way that’s far stronger than senators can.

Q. Do we need something like a national referendum on the Senate?

A. I would leave it to the federal government to decide the best way to consult with provinces. So I suppose everything is possible, in future. But the main thing is that it’s our view the federal government should sit down, get the premiers together and have that discussion.

Q. The other scenario that gets brought up when the discussion turns to actually amending the Constitution and whether that requires provincial consent, is the idea that as soon as you open the possibility of changing the Constitution, you’re going to have other provinces making other demands that are unrelated to the Senate and that suddenly this becomes a much larger discussion. Does that concern you at all?

A. If it means improving the democratic institutions in our country, I think it is right that the federal government should have those discussions with the provinces. I know the last couple of efforts to amend the Constitution haven’t been successful, that doesn’t mean that you stop trying. I think that the possibility of doing away with an anti-democratic, out-dated institution is something that will get Canadians to sit up and take notice. If provinces wish to bring other items into the discussion that’s fine. But any province that takes what I would see as an unreasonable position on insisting on preserving an archaic institution will have to answer to their own people, but also to other Canadians.

Q. Obviously Brad Wall has come around to abolition. Do you have any sense that other premiers beyond that are open to the idea? Have there been any discussions among the provinces about where this could be doing?

A. I can’t speak for the discussions at the last Council of the Federation. You know, we do stand with Premier Wall in Saskatchewan and Premier [Darrell] Dexter in Nova Scotia. I expect that there are other provinces that would certainly agree that abolition is the first and best choice for moving ahead. I’m hoping some more of those will come forward in the near future.

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