Senate abolitionists need to stop and think

Peter Jackson
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“We have 24 senators from Quebec and there are just six from Alberta and six from British Columbia. That’s to our advantage.”

— Federal Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, in a May 25 interview in La Presse.

Still a little green behind the ears, Justin Trudeau occasionally leaps before looking where his words might lead.

Such was the case in the above comment published in La Presse, where he vowed to stand up for the Canadian Senate in the wake of the NDP’s pledge to abolish the chamber.

He’s put his foot in his mouth before, usually when he feels safely cocooned in the media boardrooms of his home province. And, as before, his latest uttering lays bare his deep-seated preference for

Quebec over other provinces and regions.

Not the wisest message for a federal leader.

It’s sad, really, because the essence of what he’s saying — that the Senate emphasizes regional voices over popular and provincial representation — is exactly what makes the Senate so invaluable.

We’ve seen some of the most troubling behaviour by senators in the past year or so than at any time in the past.

First, there were offensive remarks by Sen. Patrick Brazeau, followed by domestic and sexual assault charges. Then we’ve had news of questionable expenses by four senators, which led to last week’s astounding spectacle of the prime minister’s chief of staff picking up the tab for Sen. Mike Duffy’s ill-gotten gains.

The Senate is corrupt. Cue the abolitionists.

The fact is, though, that the Senate is not corrupt, merely a handful of those chosen to sit in it. It is the cynical, and ageless, practice of appointing government stooges to stack the deck that is truly to blame. Senators are chosen for their eagerness to toe the party line, rather than for tangible merit.

This can be remedied through some sort of electoral process, or even by just wrenching the exclusive decision out of the hands of the prime minister.

Trudeau has been soundly thrashed for appearing to pit regions against each other. Taken in isolation, his words certainly are divisive.

But regionalism is exactly what the country’s founders had in mind. (I summarized this in a June 2011 column.)

By 1915, the allotment of senators was apportioned equally according to four regions — the Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec and the West.

The intent was to afford an extra voice for regions that have (or at least had) a separate and distinct political identity before Confederation.

Keeping a balance

When Newfoundland entered Canada, it was allotted six senators, the same as British Columbia. Although B.C. has considerably more people, its senatorial power exists only in the context of the western region as a whole.

This is part of the braking system the Senate provides in Canadian politics. The House of Commons, always the core source of power, is chosen purely by proportional representation.

The provinces have constitutionally guaranteed powers over their own jurisdictions.

The Senate acts as a sort of national conscience; its power is limited, but its representatives are chosen regionally and provide what one hopes to be a more experienced and reflective voice. (A rarity these days, it seems.)

Abolishing the Senate is folly, particularly in a country where the Prime Minister’s Office increasingly exerts more power than Parliament itself (a trend that was, arguably, started by Trudeau’s father).

Even major restructuring would be controversial and ill-advised. It would entail constitutional reform, and two words — Meech Lake — should be enough to send anyone screaming from that concept.

The Senate could use tweaking, particularly in the accounting department, but the original purpose envisioned for it is a sound one.

What’s needed is revitalization, not destruction.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor.


Organizations: La Presse, Canadian Senate, NDP House of Commons

Geographic location: Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta La Presse.Still Ontario Newfoundland Canada Meech Lake

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Recent comments

  • Diane
    May 30, 2013 - 11:49

    Trudeau's statement doesn't "lay bear a deep seated preference for Quebec". It lays bear the fact that he apparently hasn't learned the way his statements can be twisted and used against him when viewed through a mindset common among an element of the political right that is very different from his own. Or else he knows it but refuses to give into it, which may be admirable but foolhardy. When I watched his Mansbridge interview and the Boston bombing, which had just happened, came up, before I read any responses to it, I knew what he was saying made sense but I also knew as soon that as he mentioned causes of terrorism it was going to be used against him. I knew that because there is a mindset, especially on the right, that equates trying to understand causes of terrorism with sympathizing with terrorists. Why didn't he know that? Or does he know that but thinks he shouldn't adjust his comments to avoid illogical criticism? Similarly, there is a mindset, especially on the right, that involves accepting as fact, without proof, that Quebec and/or the French in Canada have been showered with endless favours by federal governments and any more leaders from Quebec should be avoided. Remember Harper's old Reform Party's anti-Quebec leader ad. They were refreshingly blunt. According to this mindset Trudeau is automatically suspect. Mulcair, as a Quebec Anglophone, is really only suspect because of his large support in Quebec. Not all conservatives have this mindset, of course, and not all conservative politicians would play to it either. It wasn't at all a dominant characteristic of the old Progressive Conservatives who were mostly quite the opposite. But the Reform element of the Harper Party specializes in it, just like an element in the US Republican Party capitalizes on the notion that American whites and/or Christians are being victimized by various minority groups in league with liberal elites prominent in the establishment including media. That's why Obama, especially, is attacked for anything that sounds even vaguely sympathetic to a minority group, and he's watched like a hawk for any sign of sympathy for Muslims (the family connection issue) which could be translated to sympathy for terrorists, or for African Americans, or any minority. Again, does Justin Trudeau not understand this mindset that is prevalent among a certain element on the political right, and the way Harper type conservatives promote it and use it against their opponents on the left? He is, in fact, not remotely a Quebec nationalist, but doesn't he understand he will be painted that way? Is he politically naive, or does he fancy himself refusing to give into that mindset, and politicians who play to it, and the plain old bigotry that often underlies it? Does he now accept the fact that, however illogical, he cannot make statements that Quebec benefits from the Senate, or anything else in Canada, and he must never say "we" when talking to Quebecers, without getting that negative reaction, and, at least needs to be prepared for it.

  • Eli
    May 29, 2013 - 19:35

    While some senators have already shot themselves in the foot, collectively they'll never reform themselves. Somebody tell me the difference between the controlling Prime Minister's Office federally and The ultra controlling Premier's Office in NL?

  • Pierre Neary
    May 29, 2013 - 16:33

    I agree with revitalization not destruction. Smear Trudeau all you want. He the best we have right now.

  • Jay
    May 29, 2013 - 11:23

    Peter, Please stop the condescending attitude towards your readers. You're not the only one who has thought about senate reform. Many abolitionists have thought this thought clearly. For years, I thought there was a possibility that a reformed senate might help. I listened to the ideas such as the Triple E senate. Remember how the reform party(now the ruling Conservatives) were going to clean things up. However, I've learned that discussions about reform are nothing but a pacifier to shove in the citizen's mouth for a temporary quietening, while the pigs at the pigsty carry on. The senate needs to be abolished! If anything rises from the ashes, it needs to come with the same audit restrictions to which ordinary public and private employees are subject. If crimes are committed there needs to be jail time for those who break the laws. Many of these people have proven that they will steal whatever they can get away with. Any overseeing bodies cannot come from the senate. All they do is protect themselves

  • Ed Power
    May 29, 2013 - 09:01

    The Senate is an institution that has outlived its usefulness with the rise of strong provincial governments and premiers since 1867. If we were to elect our senators, what powers would they have? Surely someone who has earned their seat in an election has more legitimacy than your typical seat-warming party hack, so what would we have them do? Would a senator elected by a majority vote in the province at large have more "power" than a premier elected in a small rural riding and leading a government elected with a 39% "majority" government? Would our newly elected senators serve as NL's "voices of sober second thought" in Ottawa, or would they become elected versions of obsequious little toadies like Fabian Manning, scurrying around the province at their master's bidding? Do we really want another level of hugely expensive election campaigns, complete with the sleazy attack ads warning of pestilence, destruction and disease if we dare vote for "The Other Guy/Girl"? How many "elected" senators do we need? The USA manages to struggle along with 100 for 50 states and a population of 314 million people. Australlia on the other hand seems to need 76 for 6 states and two territories with a total population of 22 million. The Australlian model cited as an example for Canada has its own problems, and we only have to watch the nightly news to see what the corporate sector has done to the US model - the best senators the NRA and Koch Brothers can buy. An elected Canadian Senate? Not unless we gut it and redesign it from scratch and cap it at 45 members - 15 each from the Atlantic, Central and Western provinces. Good luck with that.....

  • Maurice E. Adams
    May 29, 2013 - 08:23

    Agreed. Perhaps a little more than "revitalization", but its core purpose is a sound one, and perhaps elected senators would go a long way to helping in that revitalization.