Let’s renew it, but let’s not destroy it
By Art Eggleton Senator : Canadian Senators frequently express frustration at getting little or no attention for the work they do – the comprehensive policy studies, and the “sober second thought” of legislation from the House of Commons. And when the spotlight does finally settle on the upper chamber, it is over the alleged misbehaviour of a few. Without doubt, such matters need full investigation, full disclosure, and appropriate corrective action for any misdeeds.
At the same time, these controversies stir up discussion of the need for Senate reform, and perhaps abolition of the Senate. I say yes to the former, and no to the latter. I also say no to an elected Senate. Here’s why.
We don’t need two elected chambers in the Parliament of Canada. One is enough. Imagine the conflicts that could arise between two elected bodies, each feeling they have mandates to represent the people. Just look at the gridlock that exists in the United States Congress. Our system, which is based on the British or Westminster model, has stood the test of time.
The fathers of confederation had it correct when they designed the upper chamber. Sir John A. MacDonald said that we needed a “chamber of sober second thought” to act as one of the checks and balances in our parliamentary system. And we have seen that work time and time again throughout the history of the Senate.
Here are just two examples: When the Conservatives came into office in 2006, they introduced the Accountability Act to bring about more openness and transparency in government. It was rushed through the House of Commons and was found to be flawed by the Senate in terms of meeting the intent of the legislation. Dozens of amendments were passed in the Senate and the bill was returned to the House where many of the changes were accepted by a government that realized mistakes had been made.
This past spring, a bill allowing provinces to approve single sports event gambling came before the Senate after the House of Commons passed it with little due process – a one hour hearing with only one witness. They thought it was non-controversial, that nobody would object, and that there were no negative consequences. The Senate, however, believes due diligence should be exercised for any legislation. Hearings were held by a Senate committee and there were several concerns and objections expressed. Regardless of how anyone feels about these bills, it has been clearly demonstrated that “sober second thought” is valuable.
An interesting statistic from the Library of Parliament during the period from 2001 to 2004 shows that the Senate amended 10 per cent of government legislation, at a time when the government of the day and the Senate majority were of the same political party. While Senators need to bear in mind the will of the popularly elected House of Commons, the review process of the Senate makes for better legislation.
The importance of the Senate doesn’t end there. Senate committees have been praised for their work on public policy development. They frequently have more time than House committees to study issues in depth; members usually have more years to develop expertise on committee issues, and the Senate functions in a less partisan way. The chances of a House committee developing a report involving a two-year study with a unanimous decision would be rare indeed, but this is common for the Senate.
One final point: many Senators are not politicians who would seek election to public office should it be decided to have an elected Senate. And yet they provide dedicated public service, valuable insight and expertise in helping the Senate to carry out its sober second thought, policy development and minority protection mandates.
Now what about reform? What I believe the Senate needs more than anything else is a change in how appointments are made.
Until now, appointments have been the prerogative of one person – the Prime Minister, regardless of party. An alternative would be to have a special council of eminent persons making recommendations to the Prime Minister or Parliament similar to the process of selecting judges, or recipients of the Order of Canada. And that could be accomplished without worrying about a constitutional amendment. The end result would be a Senate even less partisan, and with a good cross section of well qualified persons.
Eventually, other reforms need to be made: a better geographic balance with more western Canada representation, and term limits for Senators. At least the former will require a constitutional amendment.
Let’s renew the Senate, let’s make it function better. But let’s not destroy or radically change the structure of an institution that has served us well for 146 years.
Art Eggleton is a former Toronto mayor, Member of Parliament, and is currently a Canadian Senator.
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