Abolishing the Canadian Senate: good politics, bad policy

Abolishing the Canadian Senate: good politics, bad policy

Darin Nesbitt

By Darin Nesbitt, Chair of Political Science

The bandwagon racing to abolish the Canadian Senate is circling around four senators at the heart of an expenses scandal, one of whom – Senator Mike Duffy – is under criminal investigation. Senate scandals are hardly uncommon, but this one is significant because it involves not only the RCMP but also some of the prime minister’s key advisors.

While public frustration with senators is certainly justified, more sober reflection reveals reform, not abolishment, is the best option to deal with the Senate. A recent CBC/Nanos poll indicates 49 percent of Canadians want to reform the Senate, 41 percent want it abolished and six percent support the Senate as it is. The vast majority of Canadians clearly want change, but that will be very difficult so long as they remain deeply divided over what to do with the Senate.

The status quo

Those who support the status quo believe appointed and tenured senators maintain their political independence and thus can provide “sober second thought” to proposed legislation from the House of Commons. In reality, the appointment process – it is prime ministers who select senators – is antiquated, undemocratic and prevents the Senate from performing a more constructive and legitimate role.

The most disturbing revelation in the ongoing Senate scandal is the intimate relationship between senators and the Prime Minister’s Office. Nigel Wright, the former chief of staff for Prime Minister Harper, provided $90,000 to Senator Duffy so he could repay improperly claimed Senate expenses. Senator David Tkachuk, former chair of the Senate committee on internal economy, admitted he was in contact with the PMO concerning an internal Senate report on Mr. Duffy. The claim that senators currently exercise “political independence” is simply implausible.

Abolishing the Senate

Those who want the Senate abolished do not believe the institution can ever play a meaningful role. To get rid of it, however, requires the arduous process of constitutional change, something its advocates usually neglect to mention. This proposal is not likely to meet with success, especially since the last major effort to amend the constitution’s Senate provisions in 1992 proposed electing senators. More importantly, abolishing the Senate would eliminate the only national institution that can address the most pressing problem confronting the Canadian federal parliamentary system: the unyielding grip prime ministers and their unelected advisors in the PMO have on all aspects of national governance.

The desirability of Senate reform

The democratic health of a political system depends upon the vigour of its constitutional and institutional checks and balances. Canadian prime ministers exercise largely unchecked power within the House of Commons. The Harper government demonstrated that even with minority governments – a parliamentary state of affairs where one would expect more limitations on prime ministers – their influence is unconstrained. The Senate was originally designed to serve as a check on the House of Commons (and the Cabinet), although the appointment process undermined that crucial role.

It is good populist politics to call for abolishing the Senate, but it is bad policy. To abolish it would leave a solitary House of Commons completely at the tender mercies of prime ministers. Electing senators would revive the Senate in a way that would ensure its independence and accountability – and provide a desperately needed institutional check on prime ministers. A reformed and elected Senate that represents Canada’s rich diversity is vastly preferable to a proposal that will assuredly weaken the federal Parliament.

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