David vs. David

Senate scandal: Let’s use this opportunity to change how Red Chamber works

The Senate expense scandal continues to resonate across the country.

For some, Senators Duffy, Wallin and Brazeau represent scapegoats for a lifestyle of entitlement and abuse practiced for decades in the unloved upper house.

For others, they represent a national shift of mood towards transparency, no longer allowing any politicians to spend taxpayer dollars for private or purely partisan purposes. A former MP proposes that a public inquiry led by Sheila Fraser would soon get to the bottom of things with due process.

Frequently forgotten in the media accounts is that most senators from both political parties currently represented in the red chamber (Tory and Liberal) don’t abuse expense accounts and do conscientious and largely unreported work on a wide range of public issues in Senate committees.

The underlying cause of senatorial dysfunction might well be the essentially bizarre nature of our Senate as a legislative body. A visiting parliamentarian once burst out laughing when told how one becomes a senator in Canada. Prime ministers sitting at the centre of our Executive Democracy alone appoint senators. They sit for life (now deemed to be 75) in a body with legislative powers similar to the House, but one that lacks any democratic legitimacy.

The non-stop media reports about expense account abuses might instead focus Canadians on important issues about the institution. What is its purpose? Is it relevant to a modern democracy? Should it be abolished?

Virtually all federal democracies entrench legislative protection for smaller provinces by way of upper houses. Ontario and Quebec still have almost two-thirds of our national population. For Canada, therefore, the House of Commons has long been dominated numerically and psychologically by MPs from these two inner provinces. The legitimate concerns of Canadians from the eight outer ones and three territories require more equal representation from each region in a restructured upper house.

There have been at least 25 different proposals for Senate reform over the decades, all of which have been blocked, often by Ontario and Quebec wanting no change in the existing numbers of provincial representation. Abolishing the Senate over the scandals would end the regional representational aspirations of outer Canadians for good.

Our Senate will either have to be reformed, presumably through a major constitutional amendment, or abolished altogether. It has never met the needs of the various outer regions or modern concepts of representative government. In any self-respecting democracy, one hundred appointees cannot pretend to fulfill a legislative role jointly with an elected assembly. Senators having no electors to face at elections in effect represent themselves, or more often in practice, their political parties.

The view that an elected Senate with equal representation from each province would give us two elected houses and thus be incompatible with the principle of responsible government is superficially persuasive. On balance, however, only an elected Senate, with the resulting political clout to dispute when necessary the decisions of a government supported by the House of Commons, can fulfill today the original intent of the Fathers of Confederation. An elected second chamber would counterbalance the weight of the Commons by safeguarding the legitimate interests of Canadians in less populous provinces.

Many of us support moving to a Triple-E Senate: An elected body with effective powers and equal representation from each province. This might proves unacceptable to the legislatures of Quebec and Ontario.

[ U.S. debt crisis: A temporary agreement better than no agreement at all ]

A compromise suggested by Ottawa philosopher Theodore Geraets appears reasonable. He proposes a Senate of 132 elected senators broken down as follows: Western Canada, Yukon and Northern Territories — 44, Ontario and Quebec — 44, Atlantic Canada — 34, Aboriginal peoples — 10. Our western and eastern provinces would thus have more senators than representation proportional to population would provide, and the third "E" would mean "equitable" instead of "equal." Even such a model would improve our multiparty democracy significantly.

The best-available second chamber model for Canada is probably the Australian Senate, partly because, like Canada, about two-thirds of Australia’s population lives in two of its six states. Both countries also share a tradition of parliamentary democracy and federalism. The Senate in Australia appears to function well.

In practice, increasing numbers of Australians vote for one of the two major parties in the lower house, but also for one of the minor ones or independents in the Senate. The most important role of the Australian Senate is to check the executive branch led by the prime minister, something Canada needs equally.

As mentioned in an earlier column, adapting the Australian Triple-E Senate to Canadian circumstances would constitute a significance improvement in democratic governance. Achieving it under our 1982 constitution, which is difficult to amend on some issues, will not be easy, but is certainly feasible with determination by all involved, especially the millions of Canadians fed up with what we are hearing from Parliament Hill. It’s time for action.

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.

View Comments (32)