What to do about the Senate?
Abolishing it would put a merciful end to this remnant of royal trappings.
Judging by the experience of the past few years, however, abolishing the Senate would bring us closer to a Vladimir Putin style democracy.
I do not want to abolish the Senate. I want to see it restructured with a new focus on its purpose.
My Senate would be elected and its size reduced. Two senators (maybe three, but not more than four) from each province and territory would suffice to give equal representation to the country’s regions.
Provinces would be free to form a single constituency for all senators or to establish two or more constituencies defined by region (north/south) or density (urban/rural).
Senate elections would provide for run-off elections to ensure that every senator elected has the support of at least 50 per cent of the participating voters. Senators would be limited to a single term of seven years; no re-election.
To the greatest extent possible I would want to minimize the power of political parties and their leaders to influence members of my Senate.
The purpose of my dream Senate would not be to second-guess Parliament on decisions concerning taxes and services.
What sets democracy apart from all other forms of government is that democracy puts limits on the powers of government and imposes rules for how government powers are to be exercised. In a democracy the people determine the fences within which their elected governments may roam.
My Senate’s focus would therefore not be on what government does, but on how it goes about doing what it does. True to that dictum my Senate would not have the power to amend the Constitution, but it would have the authority to call a mandatory referendum to that end.
A good example is the current government’s practice of tabling voluminous omnibus bills which cover a multitude of matters ranging from Supreme Court appointments to funding for the CBC, and then imposing a time limit on debates before forcing a vote. My Senate would initiate a broad public debate on the subject of omnibus bills, their background, their effect on democratic governance, and their implications for the long term.
My Senate would have the resources to craft a constitutional amendment to curtail the use of omnibus bills. My Senate’s budget would be adequate to allow senators to travel to their constituencies to hold extensive public meetings and debating sessions in order to discuss the nature of omnibus bills and the need for restricting their use.
Following public consultation, my Senate would call a nation-wide binding referendum on their proposal to amend the Constitution to restrict the use of omnibus bills.
Each political party in the House of Commons and the prime minister of the day would be free to implore citizens to vote in such a referendum, to try to convince citizens that it is in their best interest to either leave future governments with unlimited powers to use omnibus bills or not to.
In the end, citizens would decide on where to draw the line.
The concluding sentence of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address of 1863 is the most concise and precise definition of what a democracy is, and what it should be: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
Elections respond to the “of the people” stipulation and the services governments provide are “for the people.”
My Senate’s mandate would be to act as guardian of democracy’s “by the people” stipulation. It would fulfill its mandate by observing what goes on in the House of Commons and government, and by engaging,
informing and educating citizens, leaving citizens with the responsibility to determine how Canada is to be governed.
If that is not the essence of a democracy, what is?
Andre Carrel is a retired municipal administrator and author of Citizen’s Hall: Making Local Democracy Work. He lives in Terrace, BC.