Senate needs more than fine-tuning

Russell Wangersky
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When it comes to reforming Canada's Senate, most people agree about one thing: it doesn't work, and should be changed or simply abolished.

Quietly, everyone agrees on something else as well: while they might be all for changes to the Senate, any change is only acceptable as long as no one expects even one of the players to give up an iota of power.

Because in the end, it all comes down to power: who has it and whether they are willing to surrender any facet of that power. And, by and large, they aren't going to be willing to surrender anything.

You can argue that the best model for the Senate would be a chamber that equally represents provinces and territories, and one that would elect individual senators with particular skills. In our joint editorial with five other Atlantic Canadian newspapers this weekend, we've said something very much along those lines.

But you have to keep the realpolitik in mind. Merriam- Webster defines realpolitik as "politics based on practical and material factors rather than on theoretical or ethical objectives." And that is exactly the sticking point on Senate reform.

Whatever limited power the Senate has right now is as a legislative spoiler, and that only exists during the limited times when a majority of senators are of a different political stripe than the government in power.

And there are plenty of people who like that just fine - because a Senate that has even one bit more effective power would actually hurt the status quo.

First of all, the bigger provinces have much to lose in any model that evens out Senate powers between individual provinces. Ontario and Quebec do not see themselves as two provinces among equals, and there just isn't any appetite in either of those provinces for a Senate that would give them the same number of votes as Prince Edward Island and Manitoba.

But if it would be hard to separate Ontario and Quebec from their constitutional stranglehold of control over the structure of the Senate - for example, by seeking a Senate based on proportional representation from each province - it would be even harder to separate existing House of Commons' governments, be they Conservatives, Liberals or whatever, from their own political lock-down of the Senate.

It might well be advantageous to have a Senate that examined proposed legislation from the point of view of how it would affect individual regions of the country.

Case in point

A majority of Canadian members of Parliament, for example, might see no problem with legislation that saves money by gutting the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, because DFO matters not a whit to their world. Atlantic Canada, British Columbia and Quebec might have problems with that sort of action and, if senators were elected regionally and without political stripe, they could bring those issues to the Senate forum.

But no existing government really wants what we call in today's editorial a Senate that would "provide the strong regional check on misguided use of central authority."

And if they don't want that, they would probably have even more distaste for the idea of taking established politics out of the mix; that is, as our editorial suggests, nixing "partisan elections dominated by the same party organizations and fundraising machines that already monopolize federal politics."

No federal government really has an interest in having a non-party-based Senate that could effectively second-guess Parliament's legislation - or more particularly, one that might second-guess the political agenda of whichever party's in power at the moment, no matter how valuable those all-important second guesses might be in representing the interests of the majority of Canadians.

In the end, there is no easy bridge between the rarified air of Senate theory and the practical world of our current take-no-prisoners, end-justifies-the-means politics of the ideologue. Theory is pretty; realpolitik, unfortunately, is the down and dirty that actually works.

What we are really heading for is more fiddling around-the-edges revisions to the Senate.

The foundations will be the same, the constitutional position will not change. We'll have the same roof, same shingles, same electrical and plumbing. It might be different clapboard, but in the end, it can only be a cosmetic change, unless everyone puts their own interests aside.

You could, of course, argue that we need much more fundamental changes in the Senate for the good of governance in this country. But then again, when self-interest is at stake, it clearly rules the roost.

And who among the current power-brokers can you point to who honestly cares first and foremost for the good of this country?

Russell Wangersky is The Telegram's editorial page editor. He can be reached by email at

Organizations: Department of Fisheries and Oceans, House of Commons, The Telegram

Geographic location: Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario Prince Edward Island Manitoba British Columbia

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Recent comments

    March 24, 2012 - 14:01

    SORRY, but you can't fix corruption. the senate, house of commons, provincial legislatures, municipal chambers, are all the same. CORRUPT ! politicians no matter what stripe they wear have one goal and only one goal in mind. wine/dine on our dime, travel the world, collect a fat wage which they dont deserve and how can i forget that fat pension which all of them agree on.

  • Cyril Rogers
    March 24, 2012 - 09:51

    Only a strong and principled leader or government would cede power because it is in the best interest of the less powerful. We don't have that and likely never will, so Ontarion and Quebec will invariably exercise control of national policies for many years yet. The West may gain traction as its economic clout expands or, more likely, secede in future decades. A Triple-E Senate is the only antidote to this threat, as much as the central provinces don't like it......because the alternative is the ultimate Balkanization of this country. Power brokers never concede.....concessions are imposed on them and this will happen here in time. As we are witnessing right now, unbridled power by the Parliament is changing the very face of this country. With no counterbalance in place, Canada is becoming a country of ever more dissenting factions, aided and abetted by the CONS, who use "divide and conquer" as a method of control.

  • an observer
    March 24, 2012 - 09:33

    Just a general comment. No wonder why Fabian Manning "could not be reached for comment". After quitting the senate, then running for a seat as MP, the people of Newfoundland and Labrador did not elect him...did not want him in Ottawa, then goes back as a senator. If there was an elected senate....chances are he would not be wanted there.