Wake up, people — the Senate is important

Peter
Peter Jackson
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So then the Senate was reformed, and everyone lived happily ever … zzzzz.

I know, it’s boring. It can’t compete with great white sharks and huggable wolfhounds.

But Senate reform is a huge issue in this country, and it’s worrisome to think our Parliament could be radically altered while everyone’s caught dozing.

Calls to simply shut the red chamber down, for example, are reactionary and shortsighted. It is a classic case of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

Senate appointments have long been made along partisan lines. How can they not be, when the sitting prime minister chooses them unilaterally?

In 1984, Brian Mulroney scolded John Turner for signing off on a gaggle of patronage appoints left by departing prime minister Pierre Trudeau. But Mulroney did it himself as prime minister, as did his successors.

As well, the virtues by which senators were traditionally judged — age, wisdom, political experience — have increasingly been supplanted by crass politics.  If you’re breathing and you’ll toe the line, you’re in. Just sign here and pick up your cheque.

No wonder so many Canadians want to throw the bums out and turn it into a museum.

But the Senate is not just a chamber of sober second thought.

It serves another very important purpose: regional representation.

Senators are allotted according to four regions: the West, Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic.

When Newfoundland joined in 1949, it became an addendum of the latter.

Those regions are still pretty much driving forces today, not so much in the daily rigamarole of politics, but in terms of common goals and outlooks.

While Senators are not elected — and elections would surely be preferable to the capricious judgment of prime ministers — they are expected to be guided in some part by regional interests.

Thus, the federation has a kind

of tricameral system: provincial, regional and proportional representation.

Understandably, the latter wields the biggest stick.

Most of the power is centred in the Commons.

The Supreme Court recently conducted hearings on Senate reform, in which provincial and federal lawyers presented their vision of how it should proceed. There is a difference of opinion on what changes, if any, can occur without the consent of provinces. The patriated Constitution of 1982 calls for the consent of at least seven provinces, representing a majority of the population. But there is also reason to believe some changes do not need provincial consent.

On the extreme other end of the scale, some provinces argue that major change can only happen with unanimous provincial consent. Postmedia columnist Andrew Coyne, for one, finds this notion appallingly undemocratic, and I agree.

“The people of Canada could vote by their millions to abolish the Senate, and it wouldn’t make a dime’s worth of difference,” Coyne wrote last week. “An overwhelming popular consensus could be trumped by a single premier.”

On the other hand, Coyne perhaps places too much stock in majority rule. And like many other centrally based pundits, he often sees premiers as self-interested and obstructionist.

You can trace that attitude to Pierre Trudeau’s fight for patriation in the early 1980s. Trudeau longed to be rid of these meddlesome premiers. At the height of battle, he mused how he should go “over their heads to the people of Canada.” The Supreme Court didn’t think that was a good idea. Nor did the British Parliament.

For smaller provinces, premiers — and senators — are among the few people who can speak on their behalf. How much clout do seven Newfoundland MPs have in a legislature of 308?

And a referendum — which seems democratic on its face — would only reinforce that imbalance.

On a question like Senate reform — one that goes to the very core of the Canadian federation — reverting to the tyranny of the majority is not the answer.

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s

commentary editor. Email: pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Supreme Court

Geographic location: Ontario, Quebec, Atlantic Newfoundland Canada

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  • John Gardner
    November 22, 2013 - 09:19

    The senate is a puppet for the government that cost 100 million dollars a year. My suggestion would be to elect senators to a 3 year term and no pay or pension. Just a budget to fulfill their duties. As for only 7 out of the 308 members of parliament. This is such an injustice to the smaller provinces. There is no way we need 308 expensive politions to make decisions. Just the cost of their pensions is outrages. I believe that every province should have the same number of reps with no more than 5 each. What a savings that would be.