Friday, October 25, 2013

The senate: imagined and real

It’s human nature to cling to institutions. They are what stands between us and anarchy.

People tend to think it’s radical to question them. Yet if we didn’t, we never would’ve evolved the great ones like democracy and constitutional rights.

So when it comes to the senate debate, it might be better to suspend one’s instincts on the matter.

Sober second thought

John A. Macdonald’s oft-quoted “sober second thought” had an entirely different meaning back in the 19th century. Back then, democracy was the radical idea.

To prevent the unruly masses from getting out of hand, an upper chamber of upper-class aristocrats was created which could amend or veto democratic legislation. Senators were originally appointed because the senate was an Old Boy’s Club.

Post-war era

Canadians just finished fighting a world war to save democracy. So an Upper House of aristocracy became an affront to our way of life. That’s when senate then took on its modern form: a chamber filled with shameless partisan crony appointments.

Elected senators the norm

In the developed world, countries that have senates elect senators — except for Canada and the UK.

In a democracy, an appointed politician is an oxymoron. The purpose of a politician is to represent people. The purpose of a senate is to provide regional representation at a federal level.

Canadian senators do neither. They are only beholden to the one who appoints them. Since they are appointed for life, they are never held accountable at the ballot box.

Underneath the hood

The real work of reviewing legislation is done in committees by MPs put there by voters. That makes the senate an ornate fifth wheel.

An appointed senate is not any less powerful than an elected one. Whether the Liberals or NDP form the next government, they will find out the hard way how obstinate and activist a Harper Conservative senate can be.


The senate’s meandering course through history has produced an intolerable mess. We should either legitimize it with regular elections like other developed countries. Or just get rid of it.

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