The solution is not better patronage -

The solution is not better patronage

Justin Trudeau’s flawed solution to Senate reform


Justin Trudeau rightly identifies the trouble with an elected Senate.

“I think an elected Senate is a terrible idea,” he said. “If you all of sudden have a legitimate Senate that exercises the full extent of its powers — as opposed to one that understands that it’s less legitimate than the House of Commons because it’s not elected — you’re transforming our system in very, very negative ways.”

Mr. Trudeau’s solution? To maintain the “less legitimate” Senate, but to demand “better” of the people that are appointed.

“It needs to be fixed by demanding better of the people that we choose to appoint to the Senate. That’s the answer for me,” he said after a pep talk late Monday to several hundred Liberal supporters at a pub near Ottawa.

Just as Patrick Brazeau’s current legal troubles can’t justifiably be used to question to the existence of the Senate, neither should “demanding better of the people that we choose to appoint”—although, granted, it’s not clear what “demanding better” would entail—be considered a solution to the problem of justifying the Senate’s existence.

There are good people in the Senate currently. But you could fill the Senate with 105 national treasures (Anne Murray, the 1992-1993 Montreal Canadiens, Mark Carney, etc.) and those 105 individuals could only ever act like dignified, responsible and humble public servants and it still wouldn’t make the Senate a necessary part of our legislative system.

The problem with the Senate isn’t the people, it’s that none of the reasons offered in its defence (it periodically makes a useful change to legislation passed by the House, its committee studies are sometimes more substantive than those held in the House) sufficiently justify maintaining an unelected, second chamber with the power to obstruct legislation passed by the democratically elected House of Commons.

Four provinces maintained second chambers after Confederation in 1867. Two of those legislative councils didn’t last into the 20th century. Nova Scotia abolished its second chamber in 1928. Quebec abolished its legislative council in 1968. (Manitoba joined the country in 1870 and abolished its council six years later.) So far none of the provinces has descended into anarchy or tyranny as a result of their lacking a second chamber.

A democratically elected Senate introduces a different set of problems, but those problems aren’t justification for maintaining an unjustified chamber. The choice shouldn’t be between an elected Senate or an appointed Senate. It should be between an elected Senate (and all the complications that come with that) or no Senate at all. (To clarify: I favour the latter.)