Canada needs to finally have a broad conversation about Senate reform before politicians and interest groups transform the institution without the participation of average citizens.
The federal government has introduced a bill in the Senate that would formally recognize the Senate changes the Liberal government has been introducing since its first election in 2015.
These changes began when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau started appointing only “non-partisan” senators nominated by an arms-length advisory body.
This isn’t to suggest that some of the changes may not be for the good.
But the absence of a wider conversation among Canadians about the role of the Senate is unfortunate.
Allowing political leaders alone to change the Senate will let them design a system that suits their interests ahead of the common good of all Canadians. This isn’t how changing a fundamental part of our political system should be done in a democracy.
Electing a government that claimed it was committed to Senate reform and modernization doesn’t mean you agree with all their changes without a trans-partisan discussion. Of course, the same could have been argued about electoral reform.
The government has never answered the question of whether partisanship is the problem. In fact, it hasn’t even allowed debate on the issue. The Liberal reforms just assumed it.
For many, the problem is that the Senate isn’t an elected body. For others, the issue is that the Senate’s representation isn’t equal. For others, it’s both.
Partisanship should be on the table but the government needs to consult much more broadly with the public before moving forward with Senate reform.
In the government’s quest to remove partisanship from the Senate, it’s only replacing partisanship with regional caucuses. Is coalescing around regional interests any better?
Factional interests seem to be a part of human nature and are destined to creep into our political institutions. The authors of the classic Federalist Papers looked at factions as an inherent part of political systems, to be controlled in a way that maximizes the good and minimizes harm.
It’s very debatable whether partisanship is gone. A 2017 CBC study found that independent senators appointed by Trudeau voted with the government almost 95 per cent of the time. Though voting with the government isn’t a crime if the senator is truly aligned with the government’s legislation, one would expect more inherent disagreement in such a large legislative body.
So calling senators non-partisan doesn’t make them so. It almost seems better if politicians were clear and transparent about their motives and biases, rather than pretending they’re disinterested and independent. The latter is more insidious.
The system of appointment could be the problem, but we don’t yet know since we haven’t had the conversation.
History tells us that partisanship has resulted in great senators bringing forward many top-notch studies and good legislation. Granted, the Mike Duffy scandal of several years ago harmed all senators’ reputations, but these extreme cases shouldn’t be the basis for reforming the system.
Discussions about Senate reform are like discussions about the role of the governor general. People complain when he or she doesn’t do much but also complain when the governor general does too much.
Opening Senate reform must involve discussions about the role and powers of senators in a renewed system. Once we know what the Senate aims to do in modern Canada, we can decide how it needs to change to accomplish that. Treating just one issue – partisanship or lack of elections – doesn’t deal with the wider issue of what role Canada wants the Senate to play.
One thing driving this paralysis is the understandable fear over amending the Constitution. Canada has a difficult formula requiring substantial consensus on inherently divisive issues. Perhaps fear over the Meech Lake Accord debacle or the Charlottetown Accord failure prevent us from going down that road again. But we can’t let that prevent Senate reform.
The government must put the brakes on more premature Senate reform. Once the pandemic is behind us, it can then engage Canadians in real discussion, perhaps resulting in a referendum.
Canadians need to be allowed to speak on this vital issue.
Joseph Quesnel is a senior research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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