Opinion: Real Senate Reform

James Mangan | Contributor

It has taken almost 150 years, but Canadians may be close to a reform of the Senate.

Canada has been largely devoid of Constitutional conversations ever since the Quebec Referendum of 1995. This collective censorship has allowed Canadians to bury our pressing democratic problems deep underneath the surface. However, much like how an earthquake is caused by the release of built-up pressure, the Conservative Party’s senate scandal has brought
the issue of the Senate back to the public spotlight.

While the purpose of the House of Commons is to represent Canadians in Parliament by population (each Member of Parliament represents anywhere from 63,000 to 120,000 Canadians), the Senate represents Canada by its various regions. Western Canada is represented by 24 senators, Ontario receives 24, Quebec receives 24, and the Maritimes receive 24. Newfoundland and Labrador, as the most recent province to join confederation, receives 6 seats in the Senate, while each of the territories receive 1. This distribution of seats is intended to balance the population difference throughout Canada. Without the Senate, Ontario and Quebec would receive a disproportionate voice in parliament.

Senators provide Parliament with “Sober Second Thought.” Since Senators are appointed for life rather than elected, they do not need to worry about re-election concerns that sometimes plague Members of Parliament. Therefore, if a government is passing a popular but unconstitutional bill, the senate has the ability to return the legislation to the House of Commons without fear of consequence in the Senator’s home constituency. This role is ideologically meant to balance what may be popular with what is right for Canada. Unfortunately, in recent years, the image of the Senate has fallen significantly.

When it emerged that Conservative Senator Mike Duffy had been filing inappropriate expense claims for his residence in Prince Edward Island, and that the Prime Minister’s Office had paid off the invalid expense claims, Canadians received real insight into the partisan and entitled nature of the Senate. After 20 years of quiet complacency, Canadians are finally demanding reform.

The Conservatives and NDP have both promised radical reformation to the Senate. The Conservatives have traditionally argued in favour of either an elected Senate, or an abolished Senate. However, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent solution has been to cease electing Senators until the Premiers can reach a consensus on how to reform the senate. This action, according to a Maclean’s article published July 24, 2015, is currently depriving the provinces of their constitutionally guaranteed representation in parliament. “Proven Leadership,” Mr. Harper?

On the other side of the aisle, Mr. Mulcair has vowed that an NDP government would completely abolish the Senate. Throughout the election, they have started petitions in which Canadians can sign to support abolition. However, signed petitions do not have the legitimacy to change the constitution.

Both the Conservatives and the NDP have been vocal in their push for reform, but neither have indicated how they would go about implementing reform in a constitutionally legitimate manner. The Senate is entrenched into the Constitution Act, 1867. It’s not enough for political parties to just ignore the Senate and hope the problem takes care of itself, or wish it away. Senate Reform requires the enactment of the Amending Formula in order to change the Constitution.

The only party to make any change to the senate has been the Liberal Party, who expelled every senator from
the Liberal Caucus in January of 2014. The “Ex-Liberal” senators still consider themselves to be Liberals, and many Canadians view this as a token change. Nonetheless, it’s still the most substantive reform to be made concerning the Senate. If Canadians are going to demand Senate reform, then they need to demand constitutional Senate reforms. It’s not enough that parties support senate reform, they must be expected to outline how they will reform the Senate. They must be expected to propose an institutional alternative that promotes regional representation in Parliament. They must be expected to propose a plausible plan that would successfully pass the Amending Formula.

Otherwise, Canadians may have to wait another 150 years before the Senate is reformed.