“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