THE BLOG

Should Canada Elect, Abolish or Reform the Senate?

11/16/2013 09:40 EST | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

Public frustration with the Senate has reached a new height.

Corruption and cover-up allegations have ignited a healthy debate about the role of the Senate in our governmental institutions.

The ongoing scandal has a lot to do with the allegation of a cover-up cooked up by the Prime Minister's Office to avoid embarrassment.

But there are real concerns. Learning from past mistakes, combined with increased appetite for greater accountability, it is clear that the status quo is no longer acceptable.

The big question remains what to do with the Senate.

Notwithstanding the challenging constitutional changes required, let's examine proposed reforms:

The Conservatives have long advocated for an elected Senate. They also want to limit Senators to an eight year term. Coincidentally, limiting Senators to one term undermines the accountability that comes with seeking re-election. If a Senator knows they don't have to worry about getting re-elected, their commitment to pleasing their constituents gets diminished.

The argument for an elected Senate is compelling. How can one argue against democracy? Let citizens choose Senators and take the decision away from other politicians.

While such proposal is appealing but it is simplistic and short-sighted.

How do we think an elected Senate could change the current legislative dynamic in Ottawa?

Profoundly.

An elected Senate will gain power and legitimacy that will cause it to compete with the House of Commons. Each chamber will claim to represent the will of the people and political logjams will be inevitable.

The U.S. Congress is an example of unending paralysis that spurs economic and political instability.

Just last month, Canadians watched with puzzlement the inability of the U.S. Congress to deal with their fiscal budget and debt ceiling. The world's, not just the United States', economy was on edge.

Yet, somehow, the Conservatives think that this model will serve Canadians better?

On the other hand, the NDP wants to abolish the Senate. They argue it is a costly body that adds no value. They contend that the elected House of Commons is the only body needed to pass laws.

Again, a compelling proposal but also short-sighted.

The Senate's intended purpose is to provide a "sober second thought" to all proposed legislation. The sobriety is supposed to be a product of the calibre of Senators and their reliance on evidence as opposed to populism.

The NDP argues that no unelected institution should tinker with laws, ignoring the fact that our judicial system, one of the best in the world, is unelected yet they have the powers to test laws or even strike them down if they contravened our constitution.

We must not forget moments where Senators saved our country from bad laws.

In 1991, the Senate stopped a bill that would have criminalized abortion. In 2008, the Senate amended a bill that gave the minister the unilateral power to pick and choose which movies should get tax credits jeopardizing freedom of speech. Currently, the Senate, including many Conservative Senators, is stalling a controversial bill that would impose extraordinary rules on unions (ironically the NDP, who claims to champion unions' interest, is indirectly working against it).

The Senate frequently holds public hearings on important subjects. During those hearings, experts provide unfiltered opinions helping the public become more informed about intended and unintended consequences of proposed laws.

Because of its inherent independence from election cycles, the Senate can provide an indispensable public service that enriches our democracy.

Does this mean that we ignore the real problems in the Senate?

Definitely not.

Reforms are needed. Standards that were tolerated decades ago are no longer acceptable today.

We need to open up the Senate's books and provide unfettered access to the Auditor General. The public needs to be assured that tax dollars are spent effectively.

In addition to making expenses public, we can introduce greater transparency to the Senate's appointment process by creating an independent and credible committee that vets selections.

We can examine limiting Senators term, where it needs to be long enough for them to maintain independence and gather experience but not too long where complacency could set in.

Overall, the Senate is supposed to serve Canadians by ensuring that proposed laws have been fully studied and various regional and diverse perspectives are considered.

The temptation to embrace radical changes is understandable. However, with wisdom and foresightedness we can find ways to retain the important functions of the Senate while strengthening accountability and transparency.

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