Binkley - Senate tinkering not reform


Tinkering with the Senate isn’t reforming it

'The Senate should be seen as a permanent Canadian think tank' 

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

In a few short weeks, Parliament will be back in session and Prime Minister Harper will be pushing his agenda forward. While there will be lots of chatter about balancing the budget and the state of the international economy, we’ll also be hearing about his pet projects.

Just before Parliament broke for the summer in late June, Harper introduced his Senate Reform Act. It doesn’t reform the Senate. It tinkers with the upper chamber by proposing to elect Senators and restrict them to nine year terms. It doesn’t offer any ideas why an elected Senate would be better than the current appointed one.

It would be a gigantic step backwards for our Parliament to have two elected chambers. One is quite enough to accommodate the differing political views within our country.

If the government truly wants to reform the Senate, it should start by proposing ways to make it relevant. The first problem with the current Senate is that too many appointments are based on political expediency and not the value added the person brings to Ottawa. Then there’s the tendency of the government to want it to do nothing more than rubberstamp bills. The opposition parties want it to go away or be critical of government proposals.

The drafters of the British North America Act couldn’t foresee the highly diverse and closely linked population Canada would develop when they made the upper house part of our Parliament. That’s no reason not to really reform it.

If we go the elected route, we’ll end up with dog fights between the Commons and the Senate such as we see on a regular basis between the House of Representatives and the Senate of the American Congress. That’s not a situation we should strive to emulate.

A lot of ink and electrons have been devoted to analyzing Harper’s Senate proposals. Mostly they uncritically applaud the move to Senate elections but say little about the Senate’s purpose in a modern society.

Probably the most thoughtful piece I’ve read if Michael Harrington’s op-ed piece in the Montreal Gazette July 7. Harrington, a law professor at the University of Montreal, concludes that “efforts to reform the Senate along democratic lines have a definite populist appeal. Upon closer examination, however, the cure might be worse the disease.” Political and constitutional chaos are likely outcomes.

He’s critical both of Senate elections because of their potential to hamstring Parliament and limiting terms because it could encourage Senators near the end of their time to act in ways that would benefit their post-Senate careers.

He also says the proposed term limits “so clearly contradict the terms of the Constitution Act that it is hard to see how this change could be effected by ordinary legislation.” Seven provinces representing 50% of the population would have to support the measure and Quebec is already opposed.

Senator Colin Kenny calls Harper’s proposal “a strange quest to fiddle with a system that would work if he would let it. Harper has encouraged the Senate to take a partisan role rather than an independent, fair-minded approach to the issues confronting our society.”

Fellow Senator Hugh Segal says Senate reform is needed to adapt the upper chamber to our times but then supports the Harper initiative uncritically as if this modicum of tinkering is sufficient. 

The first step in real Senate reform is to rethink its role. Successive prime ministers have reduced the role of MPs to virtual cipher clerks so the real power resides in his office. Why would Harper have any other objective in changing the Senate?

The best course would be to make the Senate a non partisan and encourage the Senators focus on the problems and challenges facing the country instead of dwelling on the government’s legislative mandate. Senators could all sit as independent Canadians instead of members of the Liberal or Conservative party. If Senators have no issues with legislation coming from the Commons, they should be able to approve it right away. They could still review bills they consider deficient.

Appoint older Canadians who have already demonstrated leadership in business or community interests. The age 75 retirement rule will be an effective term limit. If the government needs suggestions on possible nominees, check the Order of Canada roll.

Let the Senate delve into the tough issues facing our country and the world and propose possible solutions for the government, the House of Commons and the public to consider. The Harper government should welcome their contributions instead of reacting huffily at every criticism. For example, the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry produced a through report on the troubled forestry sector in July after months of study. In a more logical world, the report would be a good starting point for a debate on future forestry policies, which are important to Canada’s economy. In recent years, Segal, Kenny and recently-retired Bill Rompkey spearheaded serious committee examinations of poverty, national security and Arctic sovereignty. The government ignores them for no other reason than petty partisanship.

Sometimes, senators are critical of the government, sometimes complimentary. But there’s no denying they’re motivated mainly by trying to improve life in Canada.

Senator Wilfred Moore from Halifax thinks the Senate should be seen as a permanent Canadian think tank. Spending a decade in the upper house would be an attractive option for people who have done a lot for Canada and have little interest in the political to and fro of the day. It would enable them to give back to the country and use their experience and insights to the betterment of us all.

Now that would be value for money.

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