Thoughts on a Red Chamber
The other day I received a call from a local morning radio host. I’ve had the honour and pleasure of appearing on her show from time to time to discuss her Thursday “Controversial Question.” This time, she wanted to know my thoughts about the recent spate of calls to abolish the Senate.
In case you haven’t been following the controversy up here, I’m talking about the Senate in Ottawa, the Upper House of the Parliament of Canada. While I’ve had some USAmerican friends suggest it might be worth considering abolishing their Senate, too, that’s not what I’m talking about today. We’ve currently got four Senators under investigation for claiming inappropriate expenses (including one who got kicked out of his caucus for domestic abuse – such upstanding citizens we appoint to the Senate here).
The Senate here is different from that of other countries in that it is modeled after the British House of Lords. While not hereditary, members are appointed by the Governor General “on the advice of the Prime Minister”; in other words, the PM can appoint whomever he (usually) pleases. The current government campaigned on the idea of only appointing elected Senators, but when it looked like they were going to be toppled by an opposition coalition a few years ago, they hastily appointed 18 Senators in one day. Looks like that haste is coming back to bite them now, as three of the four Senators under investigation are from that particular batch. The question is, should the Senate be reformed, or is it beyond redemption?
It appears to be a truism in Western Canada that the Senate, the unelected chamber of sober second thought, is just a boondoggle, a place for Prime Ministers to reward political hacks and a waste of taxpayers’ money. This conversation has been taking place, pretty much unchanged, since the Senate was established in 1867, as part of the conditions under which Lower Canada (Quebec) was willing to become part of Confederation. That Quebec connection, in and of itself, is a red flag to many Western Canadians – Western alienation is still alive and well around here, even though the Harperites and their Oil Patch buddies have been systematically dismantling liberal Canada for nearly a decade.
One of the original purposes of the Senate was to balance the population density of Upper Canada (Ontario) against the smaller provinces. Interestingly, the Western and Maritime provinces still don’t have the same representation as Ontario and Quebec, which may explain some of the animosity towards the Senate in these parts. Senators are supposed to have their primary residence (whatever that means) in the province they represent, and are provided with a housing allowance if that is more than 100 km from Ottawa. All four Senators currently under scrutiny have apparently claimed this housing allowance inappropriately. It is clearly a problem, but not an insurmountable one.
So what, if any, is the point of the Senate and why should we continue to pay for it? I agree that it has been stacked and misused almost from the beginning. One solution to that would be to take the appointment process out of the hands of politicians. If, as I believe, the Senate is to be the seat of prominent citizens who can see the larger picture and consider the common good of all Canadians, they cannot be beholden to the government of the day for their appointment. Maybe they should be selected from or by the members of the Order of Canada? That would have the advantage of only including people who have demonstrated merit in at least one field of human endeavour.
I still maintain that leaving the nation’s destiny entirely in the hands of ideologues or opportunists who are constantly worrying about the next election is neither prudent nor wise. There needs to be another channel of input from the civil society we are so proud of maintaining here.
What do you think? If we get rid of the Senate, what is there to stop the tyranny of the majority? And if we keep it, how does it need to be reformed?