The Senate of Canada was once famously referred to by John A. Macdonald as the house of “sober second thought.” In this view, the upper house is an institution put in place to act as a foil for the elected House of Commons. Since Confederation, and especially over the past 50 years, its purpose has shifted from oversight to review, but the concept of sober second thought still permeates the chamber.
A couple of weeks ago, however, the Senate fell right off the wagon. Allegedly under instructions from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, the upper house, which is controlled by the Conservatives, called a snap vote and shot down a bill passed by the House of Commons.
This was an unprecedented move, and it’s caused quite a commotion on Parliament Hill. The bill, an NDP sponsored motion on carbon emission targets, had not been debated in months. It wasn’t sent back to the Commons to reconsider. It was simply killed on the spot, after languishing in legislative limbo.
On the surface, the whole affair looks like the latest in a series of bullying tactics used by the ruling Tories. The NDP has responded by repeating its oft-heard song and dance about the Senate undermining the democratic process. In fact, the Senate’s reputation for unilaterally overriding the House of Commons is undeserved — prior to this month, the upper house had actually only killed four bills since the 1960s, and in all of these instances, the legislation in question was given a fair shake, at least from a procedural standpoint.
For the Conservatives to orchestrate such a total break with precedent is shocking, and ironic too, given that Harper came to power decrying the unelected Senate and expressing concern that it would, being at the time dominated by the Liberals, veto his government’s initiatives.
Equally worrisome is the Conservative senators’ refusal to respond to the media afterward, on instructions from the PMO. I haven’t the vaguest idea how it’s possible to convince that many people, all of whom essentially can’t be fired until they turn 75, to shut up. But Harper, in one of the more impressively draconian turns of his tenure, has pulled it off.
However, there may be more far reaching consequences than the partisan scuffle that has been set off. Harper is a practical man, and obviously saw this primarily as an opportunity to dodge legislation that he opposed. But it cannot be lost on him or his advisers in doing so they have brought the unelected nature of the Senate to the forefront of Canadian minds.
In other words, it just might be the springboard the prime minister — or some other Senate reformer — has been waiting for to launch an initiative to reform or abolish the Senate. Call me paranoid, but these days I wouldn’t put anything past Harper, who has proven time and again to be a remarkably gifted and opportunistic tactician. In his worst-case scenario the initiative fails and the status quo, which is to his advantage, is maintained. Best case-scenario, Harper ends up looking — to some — like a hero of democracy. Either of these outcomes, or anything in between, would be balance positive for the Tories’ agenda.
Whether it would be beneficial to Canadians, though, is open to debate. On the whole, I’m a supporter of the Senate. I don’t deny that some reforms are due — term limits, for instance, or a supermajority requirement for certain motions. But, contrary to popular opinion, the Senate performs some very valuable functions. It regularly produces reports on issues that elected politicians, for a variety of reasons, tend to ignore. It has generally done an excellent job of cleaning up legislation that was sloppily rushed through the Commons, especially in the post-Trudeau era, which has seen the practice of pre-studying bills disappear.
And the few times that they have blocked a bill, it has been with good reason. For example, when the Mulroney government tried to muscle abortion legislation through the Commons following a Supreme Court ruling, the Senate shot down the bill. They decided that for a government to implement change on such a divisive issue, it needed a clear mandate from the people, which was impossible in that instance given that abortion was nowhere in Tory platform.
So I’d argue against a radical change to the current state of affairs. But whether you agree with me or not, a push for reform based solely on this latest Tory stunt would be a mistake. Such behaviour is highly atypical for our Senate, and change should be argued for on the totality of its history, conduct and purpose, not just one isolated incident.
It is, however, indicative of the Harper government’s opacity. The media and opposition leaders — and perhaps brave dissenters amongst the Tory caucus — need to start pushing back hard against this approach. I have a certain admiration for the skill with which Harper has controlled his party, but surely it’s obvious at this point that he’s hiding something. Whether it’s a plan to reform the Senate, or simply conceal the election-busting views which many suspect some of his MPs espouse, removing the muzzle would be a win for all of Canada. And it would prevent the Conservatives from acting as they just have, and putting a valuable Canadian institution in jeopardy.
Greg Sacks is a first-year law student at Robson Hall who told them a hundred times to put “Spinal Tap” first and “Puppet Show” last.