WHAT I THINK ABOUT SENATE REFORM By Richard Belliveau (Article)


belliveau july 24 2017

Richard Belliveau

The issue of Senate reform has once again raised its hydra head.  The government in the Throne Speech of October 16, 2007 said that Canada was not well served by the Senate in its present form, and that it would pursue certain aspects of reform.   In the Senate itself, Senator Hugh Segal has put forward a motion calling for a referendum to abolish the Senate.

While the constitutional hurdles required for fundamental reform (or abolition) of the Senate are likely insuperable in contemporary political affairs in Canada, the issues bear investigation.

What seems to be missing in all this is a discussion of the uses of the Senate as currently constituted.

Uses of the Senate

Under the BNA Act, the Senate is meant to give broad regional representation to men (and, since the Persons Decision of1929, this also embraces women) of substance, appointed by the government in council, to provide a sober second thought to legislation adopted by the popularly elected House of Commons.

A secondary function of the Senate that has evolved as a concomitant to thought (whether or not sober or secondary) has been the practice of hearings and investigations of broad public issues that have emerged over the collective life of our confederation.Sometimes good thinking comes from these investigations.

The function of “representing” regional interests has been of lesser significance, and has been taken over – even constitutionally -  by the provincial governments and the Council of the Provinces, and they are elected.

There are another two useful but unsung functions of an appointed Senate.  First, the unbalance in regional representation in the Senate has strengthened the voice and range of representation from regions which are not demographically as numerous as others, thus facilitating real debate on the accommodation of interests in this enormous territory that is Canada. 

Second, the appointed Senate has provided an extremely serviceable mechanism for engaging, rewarding or otherwise disposing of political warhorses in a political culture that is constantly changing.This is a vastly under-appreciated but very useful function, since it provides an honorable outlet for change.If there were no appointed Senate, we would see a huge increase in the numbers of (perhaps inappropriate) nominations to heads of commissions, crown corporations and diplomatic positions, with the high risk of incompetence.There is no inappropriate or disqualifying trait for the Senate other than criminality and poverty (hey, it is in the constitution).

Another positive side of this liberty to appoint Senators is that it permits the entry to parliament of persons who can make extremely useful contributions to public life without having to go through an election – think of Professor Eugene Forsey, Dr, William Keon, Gen. Romeo Dallaire and Frank Mahavolich, entre autres.It has even been used by prime ministers to assure regional representation in the cabinet from provinces otherwise under-represented in the caucus of the governing party, viz, Minister/Senator Michael Fortier in the present government


Those who think the Senate is useless usually fall into one of three categories, or at least have three categories of justification;

those who are unlikely ever to be named to the Senate, like members of the NDP who have long favoured its abolition;

those who find the concept of unelected legislators distasteful and undemocratic (this could include the NDP); those find the contribution of the Senate to the legislative process not worth the expense.

Others believe that the Senate has a use, and most of those who believe this, yet want serious reform, seem to hang their arguments on the need for stronger regional voices against the weight of top-heavy Ontario and Quebec coalitions in the Commons.

Triple EEE

Many western Canadian politicians and pundits have favored reform along the lines of what is called a triple E Senate;equal, elected, and effective.

This is a neat slogan that begs many questions.Such as …

Equal.Equal to what??Shall all provinces and territories have the same number of Senators??One can hardly imagine that when Alberta and BC have the same number of senators as PEI, their enthusiasm for equality will slaked

Elected.Elected by whom? By a province-wide electorate?In districts?And then, who will represent the provinces and regions at the federal level?  Elected senators or provincial governments?“Consultation with voters” on the selection of senators?Is that election?

Effective.Effective at what? Shall an elected Senate have the same powers as an elected Commons?  Why?Has the Commons proved to be a bust?

Lesser Reforms

If the appointed Senate is sort of okay, what lesser reforms might make it more palatable?Shorter terms?Appointment by the provinces?Preferential non-binding elections (but again, by whom?).

So why the debate?

My conclusion is that any debate on fundamental reform of the Senate, under our current constitutional amendment procedures, is entirely diversionary.It ain’t going to happen.The only things worth discussing are abolition (and then see if you can get that agreed by all the provinces), or minor tinkering with term lengths which can be adopted by simple legislation.

We have the Senate, so we might as well make the most of it.  It is not going away soon.

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