Why does Canada have a Senate?
Not to operate as a chamber of “sober second thought,” in John D. MacDonald’s deathless words. Senators have almost no legislative or political function, which, I would like to emphasize, is as it should be. They are an unelected body of party hacks who have been placed in comfortable public sinecures, and as such should not be allowed to meddle in the political process. The Senate is a body modeled after the British House of Lords, which itself has no place in a modern democracy.
In all fairness, I think most senators realize this. And they do a good job of doing nothing. Claire Hoy’s Nice Work did a good job exposing their uselessness years ago.
Even if you do see the Senate as having a function, the idea that the dirty rabble of democracy needs to be guided over by a wealthy and paternalistic Establishment was a fossilized notion already in 1867. The United States Constitution originally had senators elected by state legislatures — which, while indirect, was at least a notionally democratic process — up until 1913, when the Seventeenth Amendment provided for their direct election by the people. In other words, the American system was always more progressive than the one our own Constitution provided for (drafted over 70 years later), and was still considered politically out of date before the outbreak of the First World War. Meanwhile, we’ve thought it best to keep with the old ways.
So why does Canada have a Senate?
Not because anyone wants there to be a Senate. Stephen Harper has attempted to either abolish or reform it, only to be slapped down by the Supreme Court. An embarrassed Justin Trudeau removed Liberal senators from that party’s caucus (they now call themselves Senate Liberals instead of Liberal Senators). Abolishment of the Senate is a longstanding part of the NDP platform. The Greens want to make it an elected body based on proportional representation. Nobody wants to keep it in its current form. Except, I guess, the senators themselves.
But reform is a dead letter. Every attempt to reform the Senate since the 1970s, and there have been many, has failed. Change is never going to come.
This does not upset me. I would not like to see an elected, more effective, or otherwise reformed Senate. What purpose would a reformed Senate have? It would either be redundant or lead to gridlock, and would certainly be more expensive to maintain (and lead to even more electioneering). Who thinks Canada needs more politicians? What problems does Canada currently face for which more politicians will provide the answer?
If reform is a dead letter, abolition is a pipe dream. According to the Supreme Court abolition could only happen with the unanimous consent of the provinces and the Senate itself. In short, they’d have to vote themselves out of existence. It’s even questionable whether the house can be allowed to simply grow old and die of natural causes. The Constitution may require we maintain it.
Why does Canada have a Senate? Because we were saddled with this house of shame by a bunch of wannabe aristos in the nineteenth century and now it can’t be gotten rid of. Ever.
And so, as the Senate continues to wallow in scandal, we the people are left to follow the trials and tribulations of figures like Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin on TV and in the newspapers. A bonfire of excess and entitlement for the Establishment. For the plebs it’s broken crackers, cold camembert and circuses.