One chamber now or both later

Michael Johansen
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The Senate may be broken, but it's the House of Commons that's out of control.

Despite appearances to the contrary, Canada's upper chamber of Parliament is functioning more or less as designed, if not altogether as intended.

From its beginnings, the Senate has fairly adequately conducted its role as the chamber of sober second thought by sometimes providing a check to the otherwise overwhelming power of the House of Commons. In doing so, it has also attempted, at times successfully, to be a House of Parliament that reflects Canada's diverse regional interests and perspectives, as the Fathers of Confederation had hoped it would.

That makes the Senate typically Canadian. It has never worked completely properly, but as long as it's been left alone, it has managed to be reasonably productive and has caused almost no harm to anyone.

However, the Senate rarely is left alone these days, not since the disaffected and deceptive western Reform movement managed to hijack the federal Progressive Conservative Party and rise to a shaky majority in the House of Commons.

Reformers have always been after the upper chamber. The Senate must be equal, effective and elected, they say, but their current plan for making it so will end up falling far short of the mark.

What's typically Reform, perhaps, is that the federal government's proposed changes to the way senators are chosen only pretends to be democratic. All Ottawa intends is to give provincial legislatures the option of arranging the election of candidates for the prime minister to thereafter approve or reject.

In Stephen Harper's proposed system, Canadian citizens won't have the right to vote for senators. It will only be a privilege granted to some. The final choice will continue to be at the whim of the prime minister.

Real reform will take more than just adding a toothless election to the senator selection process. Real reform enhances the Senate's primary responsibility of ensuring that legislation passed by the House of Commons is truly reflective of the interests of all Canadians, not just of those who control the lower house. Real reform would reverse the increasing concentration of power in the Prime Minister's Office and would give it back to the Canadian people.

So far, the Senate is still equipped to occasionally deal with a House of Commons that overreaches, but now it has to do more and it can't. It is not equipped to deal with a House of Commons that is itself powerless before a prime minister who reaches beyond his due.

To be effective in such circumstances, the Senate must be elected, but token elections won't work. Elections that can be vetoed by the executive confer no mandate to the successful candidate. A senator will still serve at the pleasure of the prime minister, not at the will of the voter.

Only if their elections are real will senators be able to fully exercise the responsibilities that were given them by the British North America Act.

The national debate on Senate reform, however, seems to shy away from the notion of democracy as the solution. The Reform movement has been allowed to define how the Senate could be elected and most of the alternatives presented are even more undemocratic, with ideas ranging from provincial legislatures appointing senators, to the job being done in a backroom by an unelected committee.

Better ideas are needed - and broader visions. It's time to remake the Senate into an institution that can truly reflect the democratic will of Canadians.

The House of Commons should remain as it is, employing the first-past-the-post electoral system to fill its seats and fulfil its vital role as a constituency assembly. But that means Canadians need the Senate to stop the growing distortion of their democratic will.

The Senate can be what it was meant to be, effective and equal, if parties present slates of candidates and the regional blocks of seats are awarded according to the popular vote.

If the Commons, that is, if the current sitting government, insists on using electoral window-dressing to avoid real reform, we won't have equal or effective anything anywhere in Ottawa. Instead we'll end up with government-by-prime- minister, and nothing more.

Michael Johansen is a writer living in Labrador.

Organizations: House of Commons, House of Parliament, Progressive Conservative Party

Geographic location: Canada, Ottawa, North America Labrador

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Recent comments

  • Taylor
    March 31, 2012 - 11:20

    If I disregard the gratuitous partisan mud-slinging in this article, I actually agree with Johansen on this topic. The Constitution should be amended so that Senators are directly elected by the people of the provinces they represent. The process for those elections should be made part of the federal Elections Act, and should be paid for by the federal government, not by the provinces. And the current system for electing MPs, which helps create stable governments, should remain - but its distortions should be balanced out by a different kind of electoral system for the Senate. I would promote proportional representation for the Senate. This would ensure that no one party would ever dominate the Senate, so consensus and compromise would have to be applied to every decision it makes.

  • Justin
    March 31, 2012 - 10:07

    Stephen Harper is a fascist, winning his 'majority' by cheating. I implore you my fellow Canadians, let us rise up and take back our country! Revolution is the only course of action to rid ourselves of corrupt politicians and their masters, the rich elite of the world. While we're at it we might as well reform the entire political structure. We need to elect of senate, separate of the politicians. Scrap the governor general (rubber stamping b*tch he is) and make it so that we can hold future senators and politicians accountable for their parties actions!

    • Carl
      April 02, 2012 - 22:40

      Hey, Justin: With puerile and hatefully partisan comments like that, I assume your last name is Trudeau?