WE’VE LIKELY HEARD ALL THE ARGUMENTS, pro and con, about our Senate and the debate will continue for years to come. But it’s time to get real on some realities about it. It’s true that the Red Chamber is a mess and a partisan swamp. Yes, there has been corruption, and, yes, many want it abolished because it is viewed as irrelevant. But it’s become clear over this past year that it will take years for such changes to come and that in the meantime it will remain as one of the two wings of Parliament responsible for proposing, researching, and passing legislation. Just because you can’t abolish it doesn’t mean you can’t change it. Let’s think about what we can do in the present to make it as relevant as possible.
There is no way a law can be passed or receive Royal Assent without the Senate’s approval. That’s in part why Friday’s Speech from the Throne is read by the Governor General in the Senate, not the House. For any government with an ambitious agenda, the approval from the Senate is the only way it can be enacted. So while numerous voices debate its abolition or relevance, it nevertheless retains a vital role in the collective of the Canadian people, whether people acknowledge it or not.
It is precisely this balance and accountability between the House and the Senate that proved so productive in establishing Canada as a nation to be admired and respected. Through it all the Senate of Canada played a vital role in moving the nation forward. Its logic and operation derived from centuries of parliamentary progress through that great mother of all parliaments in Britain. True, it was an old boy’s club, and, yes, it overlooked needed reforms just as the House of Commons did. But along the way it validated a woman’s right to vote, approved provinces joining Confederation, supplied support for our military forces overseas, partnered with the House to introduce pensions and healthcare across the country, and ultimately assisted in guiding Canada into the modern age.
There were times when the Senate purposefully held up needed legislation, but far more frequently it modified the bills sent over from the House, making them better and more workable. As the place where intensive scrutiny and research on legislation before it can be officially passed, the Senate is the final arbiter, the more refined tool for making laws effective. It has done this since the country’s beginning and shouldn’t be overlooked because some individuals from the political ranks sought to make it a blunt partisan instrument.
This is why the Senate has been appropriately labeled the sanctum of “sober second thought,” as John A. Macdonald put it. It has saved legislation that was severely flawed and fine-tuned our laws with other jurisdictions like provinces or even our overseas partners.
In the end, senators are not elected and know that the ultimate power lies with the House of Commons, where elected officials debate their priorities. And yet if the Senate itself becomes a theatre of partisan operation like the House itself, the opportunities to enhance and refine legislation grow greatly diminished.
The former speaker of the House, Peter Milliken, has been reminding people who for decades laws have been passed effectively and judiciously as individual members of the House and Senate followed rules of procedure and ethical public service. But in recent years both chambers have been cheapened, not by ineffective precedent or procedures, but by party hacks who have crippled their performance and undermined governance in the process. It’s not better rules we need in the House or Senate, but better people – representatives elected or appointed who understand that their primary purpose is the security, inclusiveness, and prosperity of Canada.
The Senate should be filled with knowledgeable and ethical representatives who, because they don’t have to be elected and remain susceptible to the worst practices of partisanship, can, like researchers, apply their minds and spirits to legislation that is sent to them to make better.
Does the Senate require reformation? Absolutely. But it is important to remember that it could still have been effective under its present procedures if it hadn’t been carpet bombed by partisanship in recent years. Good people, even in a difficult system, can make good laws. Political neanderthals, even with the best of support and research, can obliterate the democratic spirit through their actions.
Author David Brooks once defined what should be the true disposition of a public servant: “They possess the self-effacing virtues of people who are inclined to be useful but don’t need to prove anything to the world: humility, restraint, temperance, respect, and soft self-discipline are what drive their actions.” Put these kind of people in the Senate and even its worst tendencies will be transcended by integrity, knowledge, and dedication to public duty.