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Senate “Reform”: Don't Drink the Kool-Aid

National Post - January 25, 2012

By Colin Kenny

On the question of Senate reform, let me say this: “oink.”

Hey, why not? What’s the point of saying anything else? The cartoonists’ depiction of Senators as porkers lined up at the trough is so indelible in Canadians’ minds that to try to make a reasoned argument against abolishing the Senate – or electing the Senate – is usually shouted down before any thoughtful debate can begin.

Never mind. Allow me to push my snout in here and give the counter-argument one more try. Remember, I have not one nickel to gain or lose on this one – I’m here for eight more years, then I’m gone.

Here are half a dozen thoughts on Senate “reform” for your consideration:

ELECTED vs APPOINTED.

 Believe it or not, you can run an effective democracy without all its components being elected. In fact, you must. Federal civil servants aren’t elected, but they play a key role in governance. The Supreme Court isn’t elected. Ditto. No question, initiators of legislation requiring public expenditures should be elected. That’s why we have the House of Commons. But the Senate is designed to review that legislation. While it can delay its passage, by convention everyone agrees that it can’t stop it. So the argument that it is undemocratic to appoint significant components of government doesn’t hold water. In the end, within the legal guidelines of the constitution, the elected component of Parliament has the last word. That’s all that matters.

ELECTED SENATE = STRONGER SENATE.

 The appointed Canadian Senate is well aware that while it can delay legislation and attempt to amend it, in the end the Commons must have the final say. Would an elected Senate have such inhibitions? Why would it if it were elected? Has anyone looked at the U.S. Congress lately? The Senate is elected, and senators spend more of their time and energy scrounging for money to get re-elected. Meanwhile the elected House of Representatives and the elected Senate are virtually deadlocked. Nothing gets done. Elected senators in Canada would actually have more heft than elected members of the Commons, because their constituency would be the whole province in which they got elected rather than just one little riding with a fraction of the province-wide vote. How are you going to run a government out of the Commons with such big hitters in the Senate? You couldn’t. We’d need a president. President Harper?

TERM LIMITS.

 Nine-year term limits for senators? Why? It takes most people several years on Parliament Hill to become really useful politicians. Why cut them off in their prime? If you’re going to elect both MPs and Senators, why a time limit for one and not for the other? How many high-performance people are going to want to run for the Senate when they’re in their 30s, 40s and 50s, knowing they’ll be going back to try to restart their former careers after nine years (meaning they’ll be forced to focus on job-hunting in their last two years in the Senate, leaving them open to pressure from people willing to offer them jobs). Most of those who will want to run for the Senate will be rich and old – a lot richer and older than the gang the cartoonists currently love to lampoon.

RELATIONS WITH THE PROVINCES.

 All senators are expected to speak up in their province’s interests at the federal level, augmenting the role played by provincial premiers. But if you elect senators on a provincial basis, you would be to a considerable extent replacing the role of the premier. Perhaps that is what the prime minister wants, in that he has shown little interest in negotiating with premiers.

ABOLISH THE SENATE ALTOGTHER.

 Why? Even its harshest critics will admit that the Senate does good work, both in terms of scrutinizing legislation and producing valuable reports on long-term issues important to Canadians that the Commons doesn’t have the time (or interest) to take on. Senate reports are often a cheap way of examining an issue that is vital to Canadians – former senator Michael Kirby’s 2002 report on the state of the Canadian health system was far more insightful than the royal commission report produced the same year under the direction of former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, and cost far less – $442,000 for Kirby, $15 million for Romanow.

In 2010 the Senate cost every Canadian $3.14 – one boutique cup of coffee.  Which makes us a pretty cheap date.

Take a good look people. The House of Commons has a lot more problems than the Senate does. Under the iron fist of the Prime Minister’s Office, the power of individual MPs and their committees just keeps eroding. There are now two types of MPs – government MPs, who aren’t allowed to do anything the prime minister doesn’t want them to do. And opposition MPs, who have become so powerless that all they can do is ask questions that ministers answer with platitudes drafted by the PMO.

So start by reforming the Commons. And if you want to “reform” the Senate too, do it the way the constitution prescribes, by gaining the support of seven provinces with more than 50 percent of Canada’s population.

That will be a problem, because most provincial premiers appear to be well aware of what more and more people in the media are finally starting to recognize: the prime minister’s stupid proposals for revamping the Senate won’t work.

[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence. kennyco@parl.sen.gc.ca]