Why the Senate should be abolished

In the face of patronage, scandal and futility, getting rid of the Senate is a better option than doing nothing at all
Governor General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday June 3, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Let’s begin with a trivia question for constitutional experts: name all the federal states worldwide with a single, or unicameral, legislature.

It’s commonly held that federations—countries marked by overlapping powers of national and provincial or state governments—must have upper and lower houses in their legislatures to ensure effective regional representation and prevent power imbalances. And yet some federal states manage to govern without a second legislative body.

The answer to our question? United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Micronesia, the Comoros Islands and St. Kitts and Nevis. Oh, and don’t forget Canada.

Canada does have a Senate, of course. And yet this is a distinction in name only. On a daily basis evidence piles up that reveals our upper house to be neither useful nor necessary. An incessant string of scandals and disgraceful conduct by senators has turned the red chamber into a national embarrassment. Its functionality has been eroded to nothing with little prospect for change, despite claims from the Harper government to champion Senate reform.

While the Senate may have been a good—perhaps even critical—idea during the founding of Canada, today it serves no real purpose other than to bring itself into disrepute. From a practical perspective, Canada already has a unicameral legislature. Why not make it official?

During the Quebec Conference of 1864, which set out the future structure of Canada’s political system, John A. MacDonald, then attorney general and not yet a Sir, observed, “In order to protect local interest, and to prevent sectional jealousies, [Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes] should be represented in the Upper House on the principle of equality.” In fact, the shape and power of the Senate was one of the main topics of consideration at Quebec City, occupying six of 14 days.

It now seems ludicrous to imagine the Senate should take up even an hour of serious discussion. Rather than a place for sober second thought or regional balance, the upper chamber has become a repository of political cronies, former media personalities and many other depressingly unserious characters.

Consider the legal troubles of Patrick Brazeau, recently charged with assault and sexual assault. Or the sad affair of recently resigned senator Joyce Fairbairn, declared legally incompetent as she dealt with Alzheimer’s disease but still allowed to vote. Or the ongoing residency and travel expense scandal in which various high-profile senators have had trouble identifying where they lived. Or the fraud conviction of former senator Raymond Lavigne. Or, or, or . . .

Of course the Senate has long had a reputation for cronyism. And it’s no stranger to impropriety. Witness the Beauharnois scandal during the 1930s, in which two Liberal senators personally benefited from the government’s construction of a hydro dam on the St. Lawrence River. Lately, however, the pace of scandal has picked up at the same time as the Senate has found itself with even less do to.

The dramatic centralization of power in Ottawa into the hands of the Prime Minister’s Office means the Senate can no longer play any significant role in the mechanics of Canada’s political system. Where it was once conceived as a forum for providing scrutiny and financial oversight of government business, the rise of public watchdogs such as the auditor general and the Parliamentary Budget Office has entirely supplanted this role. And the Senate’s lack of democratic legitimacy prevents it from pushing back against government initiatives in the name of regional fairness.

Added to all this is the popular perception, fuelled by the current expenses scandal, that senators seem to work their hardest when maximizing their take from the public purse; finding new and inventive ways to claim travel and living costs or otherwise skirting the rules.

Such a situation is troublingly ironic, given that Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to power in 2006 promising to make the Senate relevant and respectable again by ending political appointments and implementing a process to elect new senators.

Unfortunately, and despite the appointment of two elected senators from Alberta, Harper appears to have been seduced, as were all his predecessors, by the prospect of using the Senate to reward friends and consolidate his own political power. Where he once derided the Senate as a “dumping ground for the favoured cronies of the prime minister” Harper has thus far made senators out of a passel of failed Conservative candidates, several major party donors, his former communications adviser and various others who appear out of their depth, such as Brazeau and former newsman Mike Duffy.

Harper’s Senate Reform Act, introduced in 2011, proposed to appoint senators elected through provincial elections and limit terms to a non-renewable nine years. Both are sensible suggestions that would go a long way to repairing the Senate. Yet it was only last month, with the Senate rocked by a string of scandals, that Harper went to the trouble of asking the Supreme Court for an opinion on the obvious constitutional problems associated with his proposed changes. As Maclean’s Ottawa Editor John Geddes’s lengthy investigation into the practicality of Senate reform makes plain (see “ ‘Contempt for the whole institution,’ ”), Harper’s reforms will likely require the approval of seven provinces comprising at least half of Canada’s population. It’s a stiff requirement.

It is already the case, however, that provinces other than Alberta, notably New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, have already passed or are in the process of considering Senate election legislation. Nonetheless Harper continues to grind out appointed senators in these provinces rather than encouraging elections by offering to cover the costs. Two months ago, for example, Harper named Denise Batters, wife of deceased Conservative MP David Batters, as Saskatchewan’s newest senator. Adding a further dash of irony, Batters was chief of staff to the provincial justice minister when Saskatchewan’s Senate election bill was passed.

It’s hard to escape the feeling that Harper’s passion for Senate reform has been severely compromised by his seven years in power. This makes intuitive, if disappointing, sense. Regardless of any expressions of idealism when in opposition, what sitting prime minister would want to create a truly equal, elected and effective Senate that would have as its main purpose to counterbalance or limit his own powers? From this perspective, Senate reform may simply be an outsider’s preoccupation, doomed to be abandoned once power is achieved. If so, then real, constructive Senate reform is not just a remote prospect, but an absolute impossibility. Is there a way out of this trap of hypocrisy?

It’s worth noting that Harper’s court reference also puts forth the option of abolishing the Senate altogether. The Supreme Court has been asked to consider three possible methods of achieving this: inserting an end date, eliminating all mention of it from the Constitution or simply taking away its powers. It’s a strategy worth a serious look.

On paper, abolition appears as constitutionally difficult as reform. But at least it holds the promise of being attractive to the ruling party, since it does not entail any loss of political power. As such, it exists within the realm of possibility. And given the ongoing legacy of patronage, scandal and futility, getting rid of the Senate looks to be a better option than doing nothing at all.