In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

The Strength of Our Senate

Posted 5/26/2008 by Grant Mitchell

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It is probably true that there is a good deal of consensus amongst Canadians that the Senate should be elected. What is less clear is whether the current approach to piecemeal elections will make things better. The problem is that the Senate essentially has a veto over all the legislation that the House of Commons produces. It is a power that is seldom used because Senators are reluctant to overrule the elected House of Commons. If they were elected, this would change. I have written quite often of the two issues that this creates:

1.  Without a mechanism to resolve impasses the Senate could literally grind government to            a halt.
2.  With the Atlantic Provinces having 30 seats compared to the West’s 24, the regional                      imbalance that people lament would simply be exacerbated, not redressed.

Regardless, it is very unlikely that real Senate reform will occur anytime soon. Quebec and the Atlantic provinces are in particular reluctant to consider Senate reform. For that and other structural reasons, it is not likely to occur anytime soon.

Accepting that, why not consider what the Senate offers even as it is now configured. Remember that Canada has been exceptionally well served by its Parliamentary institutions and exists because the Senate was a final step in convincing Lower Canada, Quebec, to enter the union:

1. Almost all federations in the world have a second house. It may not be a coincidence that federations which by definition may be more complicated to govern may find the second house a particular asset in sorting out the complexities of federations.

2. Members of the House of Commons are driven by the pressures – and they are considerable – of the next election. This can mean that they are compelled to pursue issues with direct and significant political payoff. Issues that may be important but that are of less political urgency are not at the top of the priority list for a politician driven by the pending election. Recently, we have had three elections in 7 years. Senators have been free to pursue issues of this sort, that are very significant but that affect a dispersed and/or weak constituency: Fairbairn on literacy, Kirby on mental health, Carstairs on palliative care.

3. The Senate is noted for the depth and thoughtfulness of its committee work. It has 17 standing committees on everything from finance to energy, environment and human rights. These committees are much more productive than their Commons’ counterparts because they are not encumbered as much by the distraction of partisan politics. It has the power to draw some of the best minds in the country and even in the world to testify in its studies on a broad range of current issues. It also has a platform from which to talk about its findings on these issues. Senate studies have had significant impact on public policy development as a result.

4. Senators stay around long enough to provide institutional memory. This is often instrumental in informing less experienced Parliamentarians of lessons that have been learned before and apply once again. Mistakes are avoided and decisions are enhanced.

5. Senate appointment has meant that there is a far better representation of under represented groups. 21% of MPs are women while 35% of Senators are.  There are 6 aboriginal Senators.

6. Senators bring remarkable backgrounds and experience and accomplishment to the legislative process and the public policy debate, once again because of the appointment process. Because they are integrated fully into the caucuses of their respective parties they are in a position to bring these advantages to bear in the policy development process. Senators are members of their national caucuses and can participate in their meetings along with the MPs. When in government this gives them weekly access to the Prime Minister and the cabinet ministers. While they cannot exercise their power as aggressively as they might were they elected, they can and do exercise influence.

The point is that in the absence of what many feel to be a more perfect model of reformed Senate,  the Senate does and has serve a purpose in the Parliamentary process. I believe that the country is better because of it.

 

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