This paper was presented at the Conference on Senate Reform held at the University of Ottawa on January 28, 2015. For full article, click here:Thomas
To state that the Canadian Senate suffers from a poor image and reputation qualifies as a gigantic understatement. Since its creation back in 1867, the institution has always been assessed critically by most politicians, including MPs, premiers, and even Senators, as well as by many members of the media, think tanks, academic commentators and the public.
The list of complaints about the Senate is long and long standing. It starts with the fact that the Senate is one of the few upper legislative houses in a western democracy that remains appointed rather than elected, something that is seen by many to be a constitutional anachronism in the 21st century. Most of the other complaints flow from this perceived lack of democratic accountability and legitimacy.
Other complaints about the Senate include: smaller provinces and regions are drastically overrepresented; appointments are made on the basis of past and anticipated future service to the governing party, regional representation is overridden by partisan loyalty, Senators on the government side refuse to challenge the Prime Minister and Cabinet on legislation, spending and other executive actions, the Senate and its committees do not provide adequate scrutiny of departments and programs and the Senate does little to uphold minority rights. The fact that many Senators have corporate connections led one academic to describe it as a ‘lobby within.” Other critics point to the light workload, generous compensation and perks paid to Senators.
The recent scandal involving expense abuses by Senators served to galvanize and reinforce these criticisms. The book Our Scandalous Senate (2014), by J. Patrick Boyer, a lawyer and former MP, offered the following damming description of the Senate as: “a time trapped oasis of contentment, a body undeserving of a place in contemporary Canada, puzzling to us for ever existing, a hollow shell bereft of real purpose, a legislative assembly devoid of meaning, contributing nothing but costing us abundantly” (p.142). According to Boyer the Senate has lost its roles as a regional body, as a source of sober second thought on legislation and as a source of policy review and innovation to other more capable, credible institutions within the national policy process. Since constitutional amendment to create a more effective Senate is next to impossible, he argues for a national referendum on abolition that would force politicians to jettison a useless, expensive institution.
Support for abolition has grown among Canadians over the last decade. In June, 2006 a national poll found that 44% of respondents favoured an elected Senate, 31% favoured abolition and 25% favoured the proposal from Prime Minister Harper that Senators serve eight –year terms rather than to the age of 75. In July, 2011 an Angus Reid poll found that 70% of respondents favoured Senate reform of some kind and 34% favoured abolition. By July, 2013, some 41% of respondents favoured abolition, a higher percentage than those who favoured the election of Senators. All these percentages have to be interpreted cautiously because other more academic surveys indicate that a significant percentage of Canadians have only limited knowledge of the most basic features of the constitutional order, including the roles powers and activities of the Senate. (Milner, 2002, 2010) It is also the case that public evaluations of institutions can shift significantly in response to short-term events.
While their opinions may lack a strong foundation in terms of knowledge, most members of the public have come to accept the prevailing negative stereotype of the Senate. As I have argued elsewhere, the stereotype contains some truth, but it also involves simplification, omissions, inaccuracies and exaggeration. (Thomas, 2008, 2003, 1992). More evidence needs to be gathered but I would argue that the Senate does more useful work than is popularly imagined. It is not a total failure as a regional voice. Its membership includes many talented, experienced, hard working individuals who earn their pay and other benefits. Under favourable circumstances the Senate can have subtle, modest, often indirect, longer term influence on policy and administration in ways that cannot be easily and validly measured by crude indicators like the number of bills blocked or amended. With more refined qualitative measures it might be possible to demonstrate that the Senate (especially its committees) serves as a forum for the identification and promotion of policy ideas that over time become part of the policy agenda of governments. Of course, it is always difficult to determine whether amendments to bills or changes to programs represent second thoughts by ministers, were already being considered within the public service, or moved on to the policy agenda because of the demands of pressure groups.
To a limited extent the Senate has adapted internally to the more complicated, turbulent and demanding policy environments of modern government. It could have done much more in this regard, especially if there had been more support from successive Liberal and Conservative governments. Instead, governments have increasingly sought to control the Senate, have insisted on the hasty passage of bills (increasingly bills of the omnibus variety), have discouraged certain types of policy investigations by Senate committees and have ignored reports from those committees.
Abuse of the Senate by governments, along with its presumed lack of democratic credentials and the almost non-stop barrage of criticism of its members and their work, appear to have created over time a culture of dependency, deference, compliance and lack of assertiveness within the institution. Anticipating a theme to be developed below, requirements for a reformed Senate will involve not only constitutional and institutional changes, but also cultural changes in the beliefs, attitudes and practices of governments, as well as among Senators. It is an open question whether constitutional/institutional reforms must precede and drive cultural change or whether there must be cultural change before meaningful reforms become politically feasible.
Given that the Senate is first and foremost a political body, there will always be controversy over its role, composition, activities and overall performance within the political system. There are undoubtedly significant constitutional and political limits on the types of reforms that can be introduced but we are not forced, as Prime Minister Harper has claimed, to accept the status quo. The goal should not be to design the perfect Senate. Instead we need to think about how to make the Senate more effective and more legitimate.
Would-be reformers should be humble and cautious about making claims for their redesign proposals because there are very real limits on our understanding of how particular reforms will interact with other changes taking place within the political system. The process of reform cannot be like calibrating dials to obtain a Senate with just enough authority and legitimacy to perfectly complement the roles of other institutions like the political executive, the House of Commons, the provincial governments and the courts. More incremental, evolutionary and experimental improvements should not be dismissed as unimportant if they enable the Senate—which is not going to disappear any time soon—to contribute more to the national policy process, to the operation of the federal system and to Canadian democracy.
Paul G. Thomas is a Professor Emeritus in Political Studies at the University of Manitoba, where he taught for over 40 years, the last ten as the first Duff Roblin Professor of Government. He won both university wide and national awards for his teaching in public administration and public policy.