Tariq Sohail, volunteer staff
The recent Senate expense scandal has brought some hard truths about Canadian democracy to the fore. There have always been calls to reform the Canadian Senate, but in the past year the scandal has revealed gross incompetence, and broken the public’s trust.
Decades before former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, Liberal governments had been talking about reforming the Senate but without results. In 1965 it was Pearson’s government that instituted the mandatory retirement for senators at age 75. Prime Minister Stephen Harper went into office saying that the Senate is an abomination to democracy – though he appointed senators loyal to the Conservative platform.
Just four weeks ago, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau removed all 32 Liberal senators from the Liberal caucus. This was truly remarkable for two reasons: one is that Liberals have always had senators and now do not; the second is that this makes the Senate more independent – as it should be.
The only problem is that independent senators are now less accountable. Even though there are no Liberal senators, 32 senators are still Liberal-leaning. Removing them from caucus doesn’t necessarily change all that much.
Trudeau’s Senate reform plan promises that he will set up an independent commission to nominate non-partisan individuals for the Senate. This is a step in the right direction. Having an elected Senate would be redundant because we might as well add 100 more seats to the Lower House.
The Senate should act as a checkpoint between a majority government and its ability to pass laws. Majority governments can sometimes pass laws which are not truly representative of Canada, which is why the Senate must exist. Currently, the Senate is not representative of the country because there are disproportionately more senators per capita for Atlantic Canada than for Western Canada.
The United Kingdom reformed their Upper House in 2000, establishing an independent commission for Senate appointments. Our selection criteria could be similar to theirs, or we could come up with our own, unique to our democracy. The Brits also place an emphasis on independence just as most Canadians would want our Senate to exhibit.
It is important to note, however, that all this depends on whether Canada is able to amend the Constitution. This is currently being decided on by the Supreme Court who will deliver a ruling near the end of this year. If history proves anything, it is that amending the Constitution of Canada is a difficult task. It would require seven provinces and 50 per cent of the population to be on board to pass.
The Conservative government has also asked the Supreme Court if it could unilaterally impose term limits on senators and if we could have consultative elections. This means senators would be voted on, but the prime minister would consider whether to officially appoint them or not. While I may not agree with this kind of reform, it would still be better than the system we currently have in place.
I think the most appropriate thing to do would be to not abolish the Senate. It can have a useful function in our democracy for checks and balances. Senators need to have term limits and they should be selected by an independent commission that does not kowtow to the prime minister or special interests. Only then could we see the Senate function as an institution with the ability to better our democracy.