Sunday, November 8, 2009

Against an Elected Senate (my article for the school newspaper)

In the last few years there have been numerous calls for an elected Senate in Canada. In fact, this was one of the planks of Stephen Harper’s successful campaign in the 2006 federal election. This movement asserts that an appointed Senate is undemocratic and thus inadmissible in a democracy like Canada. Although this argument may seem persuasive, it either misunderstands the Senate’s role in Canada’s government or does not value it at all. Indeed, when one considers the Senate’s role in government, one realizes that the appointment of senators is necessary to preserve the Senate’s significant role in government.

In 1980, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s Report on Certain Aspects of the Canadian Constitution laid out, among others, two important roles of the Senate: revising legislation and protecting linguistic groups and other minorities. Another expression of the Senate’s role in Canadian governance is that it provides “sober second thought.” This identifies the ideal, advocated by the great British constitution theorist, Walter Bagehot, of an Upper House formed of members that have no need to consult opinion polls and can reflect and debate legislation without the partisan nature of an elected House such as the House of Commons. Surely such a House is of great value.

The Senate’s ability to fulfill the functions previously mentioned is irrevocably compromised when it is elected, or at the least mostly elected. By being elected, it would lose the independence that is integral to its role. Consider the House of Commons, the elected House in the Canadian Parliament. Party politics and party discipline dominate, meaning that a member rarely votes against his party’s position. This is because Members of Parliament (members of the House of Commons) rely on their party for re-election. Without the support of a party mechanism and a well-know leader, it is very difficult to be elected. Senators need not be preoccupied by whether their position is popular with the electorate or with their party. Instead, they can consider legislation on its merits. In this way, they provide caution and can bring to the Government’s notice issues that it, and the electorate, would not have considered.

In addition the Senate’s purpose in protecting minorities is impossible if it is elected. In elections, the majority decides. So in the case of an elected Senate, where would be the protection of minorities? An important feature of a democracy is the protection of minorities from potential abuse by the majority. Without it, a democracy becomes a method for discriminating against the less numerous or influential in society. Thus, this is one of the most important roles of the Senate, and it would be lost.

However, this is not to say that reform of the appointment of senators is not necessary. The United Kingdom has adopted a system that allows for the independence of its Upper House, the House of Lords, while preventing it from becoming a House dominated by the Prime Minister’s friends. In the UK, unlike in Canada, all parties nominate candidates to the House of Lords. In addition, a House of Lords Appointment Commission appoints non-partisan members based on their qualifications and not party affiliation. This is reform that if adopted in Canada would allow the Senate to accomplish its role while not being open to Prime Ministerial abuse.

It is important to remember that the Senate does not have equal powers to the House of Commons. In matters relating to finance in any way, the Senate can only delay laws, not refuse them. Thus, it is the elected House that controls the state’s money. So it is untrue to say that the Senate can effectively stonewall government. However, as shown above, elections would stonewall the Senate’s important role in Canadian governance.
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  1. Thanks for your thoughts on the Senate.

    One problem with the currrent unelected Senate is that it is essentially an aristocratic institution. It contributes nothing to democracy. Its senators contribute nothing to Canada's democracy.

    Another problem is that the senators do not protect minorities because they don't represent them. Senators are not elected, so how can they represent minorities?

    Finally, as being an aristocratic institution whose members are officially appointed by the Queen, I am denied the right choose my representatives. More importantly, I am denied the right to run for an elected position in the Senate. The Queen gets to choose just over 100 members of the Senate; I get to choose none. She gets 100 votes; I get none when voting for senators. Our fellow citizens don't get to right to vote for me to the Senate. They are not enfranchised; neither am I.

    Canada can either reform or abolish the current unelected aristocratic Senate. It contributes nothing to Canada's so-called democracy.

  2. Protecting minorities? I thought that is what the supreme court does.

    Certainly,it is easy to declare yourself the protector of minorities. Political parties do that all the time.

    Term limits would help.Some of these people have been there for decades and most people couldn't identify them for their lives.

  3. To anonymous, unlike with political parties, the senate is actually able to because they do not require the majority to vote for them. Whereas political parties do. They therefore cannot, though they may claim to, actually protect minorities in the tabling of legislation. And as for protecting minorities being a Supreme Court responsibility, that is the case in the implementation of the laws. However, they are unable to table bills that protect minorities.

    To Skinny Dipper, they can represent minorities precisely because they are unelected. Otherwise, unless a minority is concentrated in a certain area, they go unrepresented. Of course, they do not directly represent minorities, but can and do represent their interests in the Senate.

    And I would urge you to prove to me the Senate contributes nothing to democracy. That is an unsubstantiated statement that disregards entirely the work senators do.

  4. Young Liberal, you have it right and it's nice to hear other people saying it!

    Another point that I'd like to expand on, that you mentioned in passing, is that the Senate currently does not deliberately thwart the will of Parliament. What do you imagine would happen if we had a Liberal dominated House of Commons and a Conservative dominated Senate (or vice-versa)? Nothing would get passed and we'd have the same kind of broken machine they have to the south of us.

    I also like the fact that because Senators are not career politicians (or at least most of them aren't) we get a much more varied group of people looking at legislation, sitting on committees etc. Nurses, scientists, journalists, entrepeneurs, athletes, astronauts. People who never get elected nor would they seek to get elected. But now our system has the benefit of their views being added to the mix.

    Reform? Certianly. Elected Senate? Please God, no!


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