Given that the Supreme Court has ruled the federal government cannot make fundamental changes to the Senate without constitutional reform and the co-operation of the provinces, the prospects for abolition or major reform are microscopic.
But meaningful Senate reform can take place from within, and recommendations released by a Senate committee this week show the Red Chamber could be headed in that direction. It’s a hopeful sign, but senators still have a long way to go in convincing Canadians that the Senate can be a meaningful and useful institution.
The committee on Senate modernization plans to issue a series of reports. The first one, released Tuesday, is called Senate Modernization: Moving Forward. The title itself is an admission that the Senate is bogged down in the past, its reputation, dubious at best, tarnished by expense scandals and a huge sense of entitlement.
Many Canadians see the Senate as an ineffective repository of political has-beens, failed candidates and party bag men. That’s unfair to the hard-working men and women in the chamber who truly work for the benefit of the country, but they can do much to move past that image by policing themselves. They can prove their relevance by being relevant.
“The Senate is evolving,” says the committee report, “but its core responsibilities remain unchanged.
“Legislative oversight, independent thought, protecting individual rights and freedoms, and giving voice to Canadians at home and abroad — as well as those under-represented in Parliament — remain essential features of the Senate. As complex public policy issues divide the country’s elected leaders, Canadians more than ever need senators’ capacity for sober second thought and evidence-based policy analysis.”
Some things can’t be fixed. One of the purposes of the Senate was to provide regional balance, but that’s a cruel joke for B.C.
Prince Edward Island, with a population not much larger than that of Saanich, has four senators. The Maritime provinces, with about half the total population of B.C., have 30 seats in the Senate, compared with B.C.’s six Senate seats, one of which is currently vacant.
The rising number of Independent senators, boosted when Justin Trudeau booted Liberal senators out of his caucus in 2014, means the Senate has to take a new look at how partisanship works in the upper house. The committee’s report suggests, among other things, updating the rules so that senators without a party affiliation can fully participate.
A report from two former senators, Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal, goes further. A House Undivided: Making Senate Independence Work, their report released in September, recommends, among other things, that party caucuses be replaced by regional caucuses and that the Speaker of the Senate be chosen by the senators themselves through secret ballot, rather than being appointed by the prime minister. This puts a needed distance between the Senate and the partisan wranglings of the House of Commons.
Kirby and Segal also recommend that the Senate’s ability to veto legislation from Parliament be changed to a six-month suspensive veto.
That means the unelected Senate cannot override the elected House of Commons, but can insist on a delay that affords the opportunity to take another look at the legislation.
It would not be difficult for senators to make changes that would resonate with the public. They could insist, for example, that their members be more accountable with their expenses, that those expenses be reasonable, not lavish. They can tighten the rules on residency, so we don’t have another Mike Duffy farce.
The Senate is in the midst of change. It’s up to the senators to ensure those changes work for the benefit of Canadians, and not for the comfort of senators.
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