|HM The Queen of Canada and HRH The Duke of Edinburgh sitting on
the thrones in the Senate of Canada
As an institution, the Senate is far more powerful than the House of Lords. Both institutions have been criticized for many years and, in both cases, various reform proposals have been laid before Parliament only to be kicked into the political long grass. Now, as the British Parliament deals with its draft Lords Reform bill, the Canadian Parliament is also to be presented with a draft Senate Reform bill. They will make for fascinating comparison. It will be interesting to see whether the Canadian proposals have any impact upon British discussion.
I post below a recent commentary by Conservative Senator (and Monarchist) Hugh Segal, with which I do not necessarily agree.
Jun 23, 2011 – 6:00 AM ET | Last Updated: Jun 22, 2011 5:31 PM ET Original LINK HERE
By Hugh Segal
|The Senate of Canada
Senate reform matters. It is not some ideological indulgence, or some biased regional project. It is a task that has been attempted over 19 times by different governments since Confederation. As societies change and evolve, the nature of the democratic institutions that serve them must also adapt or risk becoming irrelevant or, worse, dysfunctional.
The debates that led up to Confederation in 1867 indicated that the Senate was, in its original creation, about class. Canada’s founders envisaged the Upper House as an appointed constraint on the power and authority of the Commons. Their discussions proved far more wide-ranging than ultimately made it into the British North America Act, which tells us two things: First, that many of the debate participants anticipated being in the Senate during their career, and secondly, that Canadian democracy was still a nascent idea, encompassing barely a decade of “responsible government.”
In 2011, the notion that one-third of our federal legislators are unelected and unaccountable to voters is an unacceptable anachronism. When I accepted a Senate appointment from prime minister Paul Martin (choosing to sit as a Conservative as opposed to a Progressive Conservative, Liberal or Independent), it was thus my determination to work for change and democratization from the inside. I have twice presented motions on holding a public referendum on abolition, status quo or reform, in 2007 and 2009. Both times the NDP concurred and Prime Minister Harper indicated that while reform was his preference, any failure at reform might well necessitate the abolition discussion.
The current government’s proposals on Senate reform, introduced this week, are reasonable and straightforward, and do not require reopening the Constitution. There is precedent for similar changes: prime minister Lester B. Pearson reduced the “lifetime appointment” to 75 years of age in the 1960s without a constitutional agreement, and Alberta has elected several senators who have been appointed, one by prime minister Brian Mulroney (Stan Waters) and another by Prime Minister Harper (Bert Brown) when Alberta vacancies occurred. These two appointments and the electoral process that produced them in Alberta were not challenged constitutionally in any way.
The reforms being planned are not only legitimate, but reasonable and timely. Prime Minister Harper has campaigned on this priority in ’04, ’06, ’08 and ’11 and won more seats in each election than the previous. His has sought a mandate and, under the terms of our first-past-the-post system, received it directly and clearly.
The NDP has every right to propose abolition, although even if passed by the House and the Senate, such a move would actually require unanimity among all the provinces. The holding of such a debate on abolition vs. reform is essential, in order to fully air the issues at hand and explore both the government’s position and that of its critics.
As to some opponents’ angst about American-style gridlock, the United Kingdom dealt with this many decades ago through a “Powers of Parliament Act” the ensured that the House of Commons must always prevail, even after a delay in the Senate. The Senate, as an elected body of staggered terms of eight- or nine-years’ duration, would be a constraint and balance to the House of Commons that acts with reason and wisdom.
For years, parliamentary observers, academics and historians, along with lobbyists and others have argued that prime ministers have too much power in majority parliaments. These reform proposals are an effort by our present Prime Minister to limit those powers by creating a better balance between the legitimacy of the House and the legitimacy of the Senate. That effort should be embraced and celebrated by all those on the left, the right and the centre who see Canadian democracy not frozen in amber, but progressing and adapting to the real world.
Senator Hugh Segal was a member of the Special Senate Committee on Senate Reform in 2006/2007 and is the author of The Right Balance: Canada’s Conservative Tradition (Douglas & McIntyre, 2011).