In Defense of the Terrible Canadian Senate

It's awful, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper knows it's not going anywhere, despite his election promises.

by Drew Brown
Jul 31 2015, 9:30pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

The Canadian Senate is awful. It's full of crooks and sycophants and presently serves no function other than to let a bunch of bargain-bin aristocrats thumb their noses at the rest of us scrubs. On a good day, it's a retirement home for partisan hacks who rubber-stamp anything done in the House of Commons. On a bad day, a bunch of senators will steal money from you and then kill legislation (like the "trans rights" Bill C-279) passed by our legitimately elected officials. Worse than being merely useless, it's actively harmful to the exercise of democratic self-government in Canada.

To put it in highly technical political science-y terms, the Senate fucking sucks.

Part of the problem is that the Senate is doing exactly what it's designed to do. Parliament's Upper Chamber is part of the devil's bargain that was Confederation in 1867. The Senate exists because the Founders never intended for Canada to be a democracy. The colonial ruling class was only OK with giving ordinary (white, male) people a democratically elected House of Commons on the condition that they could appoint their friends and cronies to a higher legislative body that would check any laws passed by uppity peasants. That, and "sober second thought" in lawmaking was a really big deal back when the country was literally run by impressively raging drunks.

In 2015, this translates into a constitutional clusterfuck where a bunch of pompous plutocrats gorge themselves at the public trough with zero democratic accountability. So it's totally understandable that a big chunk of Canadians—including Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, federal NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper—would just rather see it burned to the ground than deal with any more bullshit. Unfortunately for those of us outside Ontario, the only thing arguably worse than having a Senate would be abolishing it altogether.

Yeah, yeah. Sticking up for anything Senate-related right now is roughly on par with throwing out "Hitler had some good ideas" in a conversation about World War II, but hear me out. There are a few good reasons to be skeptical of calls for outright abolition, and none of them are because I'm on #teamduffy.

For starters, it's impossible.

Not literally impossible, obviously. But it's at least discovering-Stephen-Harper-and-Justin-Trudeau-are-secret-best-friends-and-go-to-many-punk-shows-together–level improbable. The Supreme Court of Canada ruled last year that abolishing the Senate would require the unanimous consent of every single province in Canada, and that will never happen. As Saint Andrew Coyne so lovingly put it, "uniquely among the democracies, our constitution is regarded not as an instrument of the people's will, but an obstacle to it; not as the expression of their highest democratic ideals, but the guarantor that they will never be realized." Fuckin' A, buddy!

You'll never get all the provinces on board. Any of the Atlantic provinces would vastly prefer sending 1,000 more Mike Duffys to Ottawa than lose even a fraction of their negligible federal clout. Alberta will be six feet into its cold, tar-flooded grave before it'll give the eastern bastards dominating the Commons a smidgen more power to meddle in its oil industry. And you're out to lunch if you think Québec is ever going to part with some of its presence in Ottawa, no matter how useless or expensive. Every provincial government in this country would gladly cut off their nose to spite the federal face, even if it means the rest of us are stuck filing tax returns to subsidize senatorial charcuterie.

Props to Stephen Harper for attempting to be really clever in trying to get around this deadlock, even if the end result will fall somewhere between a full-blown constitutional crisis or yet another kick in the balls from the Supreme Court. His line about how "it'll save money" is a totally bullshit justification that will only appeal to the sort of people who get their political opinions from Don Cherry. It's also hard to take the prime minister seriously in his attempt to force the provinces into getting serious about Senate reform discussions because the man has never once in the last nine years negotiated in good faith with the provinces about anything, let alone reforming Parliament. Trust me on this: I'm from Newfoundland, and we're more than familiar with Stephen Harper being full of shit. And anyway, a good deal of the Senate's current crisis can actually be laid at the prime minister's feet, so his attempt to run down the constitutional doomsday clock on this is more than a little pathetic.

But all this aside, it's not going to work. It's flagrantly unconstitutional. The prime minister is obligated to appoint senators (or, technically, they tell the Governor General who to appoint, because Canada loves its pretentious and baroque constitutional monarchy). Harper's play will immediately collapse as soon as it's inevitably brought before the Supreme Court, either by some constitutional rights crusader or (more likely) a pissed-off provincial government demanding its Senate seats.

Unfortunately for both Harper and Mulcair, there's no way to cheat our way to Senate reform. We have to actually buckle down and do the work or else we're stuck with the dysfunctional trash compactor as-is. And because this is Canada, petty federal infighting leading to inaction is the most likely outcome.

Even if it were possible to scrap the Senate, it's not all that great of an idea. The hard truth of it is that the Senate is one of the only reasons we even got Confederation in the first place. The smaller Maritime provinces never would have consented to the union without being guaranteed a space for equitable federal representation vis-à-vis the vastly more populous and economically powerful United Canadas.

Because the Senate was appointed instead of elected, it was effectively disconnected from popular representation and could create a more equal playing field for the demographically divergent provinces. It was also meant to provide a space for truly "national" deliberation, freed from short-term electoral pandering. Even the Supreme Court of Canada admitted in its 2014 Senate reform reference that the institution "lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation." The only reason the provinces ever consented to Confederation was on the understanding that there would be a regionally-balanced upper house.

And that's the crux of the matter. The Senate is the only site at the federal level where we can set aside guaranteed representation of regional and other minority interests. Without it—in a system where there is only a House of Commons—all representation boils down to population size. Smaller provinces will be further squeezed out from meaningful participation in national decision-making. Maybe this sounds fine from the downtown Toronto loft apartment you share with Margaret Wente, but it's a pretty fucking alienating proposition to the east, west, and north coasts of the country.

Short of some kind of balanced upper chamber, the only recourse most provinces have to get their voices heard in Ottawa is through having their premiers directly haggling with the Prime Minister's Office. This is at least as unaccountable as unelected senators, if not more so. Voters in each province elect their respective governments, but unlike in the Senate—where debates, committee hearings, and other deliberative practices are publicly recorded for public scrutiny—these elite meetings between provincial and federal heads of government happen in secret. Think about all the problems with the Meech Lake Accord being negotiated by "11 men in suits behind closed doors" and multiply it by every intergovernmental decision ever made in the federation.

And this still isn't particularly effective for smaller provincial governments. If you think regional tensions are a problem now, just imagine if we turned federalism into a no-holds-barred lobbying free-for-all. I mean, if your kids keep beating the shit out of each other, you put them in sports so they have a more productive outlet for their violent competitive urges. This is basically the same logic behind channeling regionalism through the Senate.

Again: None of this is to excuse the Senate in its present form. It's a piece of shit. But we're stuck with it in some form or another, so maybe we should start exercising our political imagination and figure out how to make it suck a little less. Electing senators is a good start. We could cap them at eight- or ten-year terms so that they can still sit outside the normal electoral cycle and foster a little long-term national perspective, while still letting some fresh air circulate through the Red Chamber every now and then. And while making any changes to the constitution is an enormous pain in the ass, you only need the approval of seven provinces that also make up 50 percent of the population. Not that this is a walk in the park, but it's a hell of a lot more doable than unanimous consent.

My personal wonk dream is that we overhaul all of Parliament into a mixed-member proportional voting system where we send our local MPs to the Commons and choose senators every other election from a regional-based list of candidates balanced by gender and race. While we're at it, we could also add the third chamber—the House of First Peoples—recommended by the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples in 1996. The immediate Bolshevization of the means of production would be nice too, but I'm pretty flexible on that.

Or, I dunno, fuck it. If we can't elect our senators, maybe we can turn it into a Hunger Games-type situation. Make the premiers appoint senators, who then have to fight each other to the death, and the winner can automatically craft and pass any one law of their choosing before they're given an immediate Viking funeral—and we do this once every decade. I think you'd really raise the calibre of senate appointees.

I mean, if we're stuck with the fucking thing, we can at least make it fun. Right?

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