The government’s decision to prorogue Parliament until early March in response to the Senate’s obstruction of its legislative agenda has once again thrust the subject of parliamentary reform back into the public consciousness. An elected Senate remains the most popular of possible reforms, but with the Conservative Party set to assume control of the upper chamber, perhaps the time is ripe to hit the pause button and ask: Is this the right direction to go?
Before proceeding, let me point out that I am no fan of our Senate as it is presently constituted. Originally intended to be a forum for “sober second thought”, today it is little more than a taxpayer-funded sanctuary for patronage appointees who, because they do not have to answer to voters, are able to turn their privileged status to partisan advantage with impunity.
The question is: will an elected Senate eliminate, or even mitigate, this abuse? I’m not so sure.
The good news is that, constitutionally speaking, an elected Senate is actually an easy thing to achieve. As it stands now, Senators are appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister. There is nothing in the Constitution that prohibits the PM from advising the appointment of only those who are elected from within the province they are to represent, nor is there anything to prevent provinces from holding such elections. If a few provinces were to follow Alberta’s lead and hold Senate elections, and if the Prime Minister were to recommend to the Crown the appointment of only those who were elected, not only would the rest of the provinces quickly fall into line, it would become virtually impossible for future governments to recommend the appointment of anyone not elected. Ensuring that senators must stand for re-election is a bigger challenge since, according to the Constitution, their appointment lasts until they reach the age of 75, but even here there are things that can be done without an amendment. To the purist, this may seem an odd way to change a constitution. In reality though, many of our most cherished parliamentary practices and prerogatives came into being in precisely the same manner.
Unfortunately, when it comes to Senate reform, there’s bad news too.
To begin with, the goal of reform, originally, was to provide a legitimate means whereby provinces could check the virtually unrestricted powers of a federal government controlled by a single political party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons. To do this, however, the distribution of seats in the Senate would need to be changed from the current model which provides equal representation of regions to one that provides equal representation among provinces. This would require a full-fledged constitutional amendment eliminating Ontario and Quebec’s superiority in seat allocation, an unlikely prospect and one for which no credible plan has ever been presented.
What’s more, even if the above obstacle were to be overcome, there is absolutely no justification for the belief that a party with a majority of seats in the House of Commons would not enjoy a similar majority in an elected Senate. It’s possible that different parties would control different chambers under such a system, but this will almost certainly prove to be the exception rather than the rule. Far from restraining the power of the federal government – and let’s not beat around the bush, we’re really talking about restraining the power of the Prime Minister here – in the absence of any other reform, an elected Senate would only end up enhancing that power.
It’s worth remembering that the institution of Parliament came into being many hundreds of years ago, not as an instrument of governance, but as a check on the executive power of the Crown. In principle, the migration of that executive power from the Crown to the people’s democratically elected representatives was a welcome development. Insofar as the representative body that assumed executive authority was the very institution responsible for its restraint, however, the development was, in practice, profoundly regressive.
Defenders of the Westminster System, as the above arrangement is known, will argue, not without reason, that the responsibility to hold the government accountable rests with MPs collectively, including so-called “backbench” MPs who are members of the governing party, but who are not, strictly speaking, part of the government because they are not part of the Cabinet.
But therein lies the problem. Because the Prime Minister and almost his entire Cabinet are also members of the House of Commons, backbench MPs who belong to the governing party, i.e. the party holding the largest number of seats – often a majority – in the House, are forced to play two incompatible roles: on the one hand supporting the government of which they are a part; on the other hand, holding the same government accountable as representatives of their constituents. Once again, not only will electing senators not rectify this central issue, it will exacerbate it.
So what’s to be done?
In the first place, let’s stop talking about senate reform and start talking about comprehensive parliamentary reform. By all means, let’s elect our senators and, if a way can be found, let’s amend the Constitution to give provinces, rather than regions, an equal number of seats in that chamber.
More importantly though, let’s restore Parliament’s historic role as the people’s watchdog over the government by severing the office of Prime Minister and its executive functions from it altogether and creating a new, separate, and popularly elected office to fill that role. Under such a system, Cabinet would still be made up of ministers appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister, but they would no longer be selected from among those elected to either the House of Commons or the Senate. Elections would be held at fixed intervals, providing MPs and Senators with greater latitude in representing what they believe to be the best interests of their constituents and the country, especially those who are members of the governing party.
A truly independent Parliament would establish independent committees comprised of members at least as interested in the subject they are deliberating as they are in promoting or opposing the executive’s – or the party’s – objectives. A comprehensive program of reform would also include operational changes to the rules of Parliament to ensure that individual MPs and Senators have the independence necessary to effectively discharge their duties, and the resources at their disposal to do so too.
If all this sounds too radical, remember it is no more so than the reforms that have, from time to time, taken place throughout the history of Parliament. Furthermore, with the exception of re-allocating Senate seats, each of these reforms could be adopted without a formal constitutional amendment. And as I mentioned earlier, many of our present-day political institutions and practices came into being in the same manner.
These thoughts are not meant to be either authoritative, or the final word on the subject. They are meant to help revive the public debate about parliamentary reform in this country, and to caution against mindlessly climbing up onto the band-wagon of senate reform as the miracle cure for all of our constitutional ills – real or imagined.