Senate reform: tinkering with the obsolete

Last week, Stephen Harper announced plans to reform the Canadian Senate through a system of non-binding elections designed to advise the executive on…

Last week, Stephen Harper announced plans to reform the Canadian Senate through a system of non-binding elections designed to advise the executive on upper-chamber appointments.

Immediately upon receiving this stop-press news, the country rolled over and went back to sleep.

Where are the sweeping reforms, the triple-E senate, effective, equal and elected, the regional representation that will protect the West from the political weight of all those Commons seats in Ontario and Quebec?

There must be grave disappointment among old-school Reformers if this is all their golden boy in Ottawa can come up with in the name of Senate reform.

This is surely a blow to Harper’s base, still reeling from Steve’s surprise move to confer nation-within-a-nation status on French-speaking Quebecers.

All the old gang must be wondering now why they wasted so much time rending their garments over sovereignty association and distinct society if they were going to hand nationhood over on a platter as soon as they got into power.

Topping that off with this wishy-washy senate reform has got to hurt.

When the Canadian Senate was created by the British North America Act in 1867, its function was essentially anti-democratic.

At the time, the prevailing theory of democracy was representation by population, or ‘rep by pop.’

Rigidly followed, ‘rep by pop’ would mean that each member of Parliament represents an equal number of voters.

Even at the time of Confederation, this meant that rural Canadians would have been essentially powerless, and French Canada would have been under the thumb of les blokes.

By distributing senate seats according to geography rather than population, the BNA sought to control the influence of the more populated centres.

Another function of the Senate, of senates in general in fact, is to represent the interests of the gentry.

Unchecked, democracy would place government in the hands of the unwashed masses. That’s why the authors of that first Canadian constitution made a rule that a senator must own at least five acres of land. It served to keep the peasants out.

Last week, writing in the Ottawa Sun, former deputy prime minister Sheila Copps put it this way: “Precisely because the Senate is not elected, it can afford to exercise long-term vision and provide a counterbalance (albeit limited) to the untrammeled authority of the House of Commons.”

The unanswered question is, why would Canadians want to spend $35 million a year to trammel the authority of our elected representatives?

What’s gone wrong with democracy that it finds itself in need of such costly counterbalancing?

The triple-E Senate idea was never a great political show-stopper, but it has lasting currency among those who believe themselves disempowered by the present system.

Federal elections are decided before Alberta’s vote is even counted, goes the old argument, so how can the House of Commons properly represent Western interests?

The United States’ upper house is the model for Manning’s triple-E senate. Each state in the union has an equal number of senators, they are elected, and there’s no doubt the Senate is highly effective — more powerful in many ways than the rep-by-pop House of Representatives, and often able to challenge even the power of the presidency.

Currently, one US senator, star Democrat Barrak Obama, is black. At last count, 40 out of 100 senators were millionaires. Sixteen senators are women.

With only 42 per cent of the popular vote, Republicans hold 48 per cent of the seats. This white, conservative, millionaire boys’ club votes about as you’d expect on most issues — against minimum wage laws, in favour of deregulation, for top-heavy tax cuts, and against electoral reform.

Clearly, if Canada’s democracy is to benefit from the creation of an elected Senate, we’d better not try to follow the American model.

But what other model is there?

The House of Lords is about the same as the Senate we have now, only sillier and more pompous, not to mention overdressed. The French Senate is consistently much more conservative than the people, and is regularly criticized as anti-democratic and anachronistic.

Senate reform isn’t the only way to address regional inequities in a federal system. It’s not even a good way.

Representation by population isn’t all that rigidly followed today — for instance the Yukon, with a population of only 30,000, has its own MP.

Similar figures apply in NWT and Nunavut.

The average riding size in southern Canada is 107,000.

This is clearly an inequity between us and southern voters — in effect our vote ‘counts’ for more than theirs — but the electoral boundaries respect the unique character of the North.

In southern Canada, it is provincial governments that help to balance the power of the feds.

It’s not regions that are under-represented in the Canadian political system, it’s the poor, the powerless, and the progressive views of the majority of citizens. It’s the will of the people.

What Canada needs is not to reform the Senate, but to reform the House of Commons.

We need to see the power of the prime minister’s office reduced, more equal representation for women and minorities, and an electoral system that more closely reflects the will of the electorate.

The Single Transferable Vote system recommended by the British Columbia Citizens Assembly is only one possibility among many, and federal politicians have shown too little interest in the options for change that exist.

Real, effective, electoral reform is hard work. Equality and Democracy are slippery concepts, and so are co-operation and consensus, and it will take a lot of hard work to get them all right.

On the twisted path to a more representative democracy only the first step is clearly visible right now, and it is not to tinker with the senate, not to reform or revise or rehabilitate it, all of those are just a waste of time.

Bicameral government is by nature undemocratic. It is obsolete.

Just dump it, and move on.

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