The Senate has got to go

The Senate may have a commanding lead in the race to be the most ridiculous institution in Canada, but the premiers and their "Council of the Federation" made up some ground during their recent meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

The Senate may have a commanding lead in the race to be the most ridiculous institution in Canada, but the premiers and their “Council of the Federation” made up some ground during their recent meeting in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who is a serious guy, made his case to his colleagues for the abolition of the Senate. The others, led by Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne and P.E.I.‘s Bob Ghiz, made a few Mike Duffy jokes and laughed off the issue.

As bad as Duffy-gate and Wallin-gate and Brazeau-gate and Harb-gate are, the real scandal is the existence of the Senate itself. We spend something in the neighbourhood of $100 million a year on it.

For every hard-working senator like the Yukon’s former representative Ione Christensen, there are 10 that are either non-entities or national embarrassments.

Every few years we have a scandal. Remember when a Mariachi band played on Parliament Hill as anti-Senate activists served burritos to highlight the lengthy Mexican sojourns of Senator Thompson? Or last year’s sad revelation about Senator Fairbairn? The National Post reported that she attended the Senate and voted along party lines for four months after she was “diagnosed with dementia and declared legally incompetent.”

When I was in the foreign service, I once helped organize a visit by a delegation including Canadian senators to their counterparts at the European Parliament. The meeting was one of the most cringe-worthy of my entire career. In a discussion comparing the dynamics of Canadian federalism with the driving forces of European integration, one Canadian senator said into an open microphone that the other European countries were “afraid of the Huns.”

You can imagine what the people at the European Parliament thought, especially once they found out that Canadian senators aren’t even elected.

I used to think that a Triple-E senate would be a good idea. Elections would bring accountability to the Senate. Equal representation for each province would counter-balance the deviations of the House of Commons from true representation-by-population, and its tendency to have majorities driven by just one or two regions of the country. And an effective Senate would be another constraint on the ever-growing power of the Prime Minister’s Office in our system.

The Australians have had something similar since 1901 and it seems to work well for them. Two of Australia’s six states have two-thirds of the population, similar to Canada, and the smaller states support an equal senate. Each state gets 12 members, plus two from each territory. They are elected and have effective powers.

But a major constitutional change like this seems impossible in Canada due to the long, complicated road required to amend the document. And Niagara-on-the-Lake shows how content many premiers are with the status quo, not to mention the senators themselves.

Others have suggested simply selecting better senators. Various schemes are floated, including a non-partisan nomination committee, recommendations by provincial legislatures or even some committee of Order-of-Canada members. It’s hard to see how this could be worse than having prime ministers pick favourites, but I don’t think any of these would result in a Senate that looked and behaved much differently from today’s.

So I’ve come around to the view that abolition is the best option. All of the provinces have now abolished their upper houses, and nothing bad seems to have happened. The ongoing review of constituencies in the House of Commons has removed some of the most severe cases of under-representation.

There would still be the problem that the House of Commons has become largely powerless to hold a majority prime minister to account. We would have to solve that one some other way.

The federal government has referred the question of Senate reform to the Supreme Court, asking for guidance on what kind of reforms would be doable with or without the consent of the provinces. We should prepare ourselves for the Supreme Court to say “not much.”

Despite this, kudos to Premier Wall for pushing the idea. And shame on the other premiers for laughing it off.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride

Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series

of historical children’s adventure novels. You can follow him on Twitter