Politics Is Killing the Senate

05/29/2013 07:46 EDT | Updated 07/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Seasoned John A. MacDonald knew a thing or two about the penchant for politics to think in the here and now. As Canada's first prime minister he had to somehow cobble together a nation that possessed a politics capable of thinking both in the moment and in the long term.

Yet he wasn't creating in a vacuum. The Mother of Parliaments in England had dealt with similar tensions centuries before by establishing an elected lower House and an appointed upper chamber. In this MacDonald received support from opposition luminaries who comprehended the need for a checks and balances system in the forging of a new nation. It was Sir John A. who observed that the newly established Canadian Senate would be the welcome place of "sober second thought."

History bore out that early decision and Canada quickly became a stable and productive union of regions that embraced both energy and history. And it reflected similar systems of accountability in every other major democratic government around the world.

"Sober second thought." Is anything like that is coming out of Ottawa these days? Everything seems "in the moment" and exudes a kind of shrillness that hardly infuses confidence among citizens. While the idea of having an elected Senate carries a certain appeal, we might want to ask what government might look like with not one, but two chambers of partisan combat? Both the Commons and the Senate are in dire need of reform, but the reality that one is elected while the other should be merit-based is what gives our system its tensile strength.

I was a Member of Parliament for almost five years and quickly learned that when the Senate took on a project it was usually far better researched than what we could muster in the House of Commons. Our committees inevitably placed a partisan slant on anything we discussed, whereas the Senate possessed a far greater ability to focus on the subject at hand and leave the partisan wrangling to the House. It made for better research and cooperation in final outcomes.

Naturally there were times when the Senate displayed overt partisanship and revealed a troubling sense of rancor, but, unlike the House, it was the exception not the rule. Without a viable Senate, a Prime Minister with a majority government could force through all kinds of legislation that could prove harmful to the country because of the lack of due diligence in comprehending its effects.

The number of occasions when the Senate turned back initiatives either poorly prepared or punishingly partisan is significant -- as many Prime Ministers discovered to their chagrin. On numerous occasions the only thing that stood between us as citizens and a government determined to force us into a decision for which we were not ready has been the Senate of Canada.

Because Senators have lengthier terms and don't have to endure the wild gyrations of election gymnastics they can concentrate on vital issues that would continue to get short shrift in the House. In my time in Parliament, both the Senators and their researchers were by far the better prepared of the two Chambers. On more than one occasion senators revealed a grasp of issues far beyond what even government ministers possessed. It was an accumulated knowledge, developed over years of fact-finding and an ability to think the long game.

Reports that emerged from the Senate, covering everything from child security to mental health, poverty to the capacity of our armed forces to adapt to a new world order, have been of the first order and were inevitably used by governments to modify their policies. The House of Commons simply didn't have the time to undertake such arduous assignments.

Part of what makes the present condition of the Senate so troubling is that the recent pattern of appointing people to simply carry over the partisan battles of the House into the Senate has sadly undermined a rich history of legislative accountability and accomplishment in Canadian history. Historically, many Senators weren't politicians but men and women of expertise appointed because they were large-thinking public servants, not narrow-minded politicians.

Canada's Senate has had a grounded history and its occasional failures were never enough to deflect its effectiveness in the long haul. The great tragedy of recent years is that people have been appointed to undertake the dirty work of parties when it would have been better to keep such shenanigans in the House where partisanship has a role. Politics is killing the Senate; professionalism, cooperation and merit can save it, and our reasoned legislative system in the process.

Controversial Canadian Senators