Mr. Harper and the Senate

Do we need a Senate? Yes. It is one of the institutions securing Canadians’ liberty. A free country requires a legislature that hears all political and ideological arguments and it is supremely the Senate’s duty to resist attempts by the Prime Minister and Cabinet to use their numbers in the Commons to discourage criticism and limit debate.

That’s what the Fathers of Confederation believed. They didn’t think a constitutional bill of rights was necessary. The freedom of political deliberation guaranteed by parliamentary institutions would suffice.

These days Mr. Harper is doing his best to reform the Senate. You’d think he would prefer to let it languish or die. Not a few Canadians believe Harper is prone to act high-handedly and is intolerant of political criticism. But here he is, bent on saving an institution that will be likely if his efforts succeed to house effective opposition.

Most of the provinces started out with two legislative chambers but first one ambitious premier and then another found the frustration of coping with the dual legislative process intolerable and used his constitutional powers to write the upper house off the books.

Abolishing the Senate of Canada would require amendment of the Constitution Act (1867), something difficult under our present stiff amending formula. Difficult, but perhaps not impossible. The provincial premiers don’t like the Senate. The Canadian public is more or less indifferent. (I won’t speak about the academics.) The idea that an upper chamber fosters liberty is unknown. (“What’s the Charter for then?”)

Consider the arguments an anti-Senate campaign could mount. With the senators out of the way the party in office will be able to get more done, and do it faster and more cheaply. The Commons represents the electoral majority; Senate interference is positively anti-democratic. Those arguments might fly. It would be said that while the Canada of Confederation needed an Upper Chamber to represent provinces and regions, today we have other mechanisms in place.

What could a pro-Senate campaign offer in reply? “We’ve always had an Upper Chamber. It’s part of the Confederation bargain. Efficiency isn’t the be-all and end-all of politics. Make haste, make waste. Unicameralism would be faster and cheaper, true, but you get what you pay for.” How effective would those sentiments be? It would be said that the Senate excels at turning out political reports and studies. Are Canadians addicted to the idea of political research?

Abolition, thank goodness, is not on the agenda and Mr Harper is determined to save an institution that has served Canada well and continues to serve. What’s odd is that the political opposition appears uninterested.


2 Responses to “Mr. Harper and the Senate”

  1. 1 Angus MacDonald August 5, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    Hi Janet,

    I was arguing for senate retention the other day with someone who used the very arguments for abolition you mention. However no examples or cases came to my immediate mind of where and when the senate was important in blocking bad legislation or initiating good legislation. Do have any at hand?


  1. 1 Macdonald Laurier Institute » Blog Archive » Mr. Harper and the Senate Trackback on May 1, 2010 at 9:12 am

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