07/04/2011 07:54 EDT | Updated 09/03/2011 05:12 EDT

Senate Reform for the People, Not the Politicians

The choice presented between no Senate and a partially reformed Senate, is really not a choice at all. Both options lead to an increasingly dysfunctional and discredited Parliament.

Reform of the Canadian Senate is long overdue; a respected, elected second house of Parliament is needed more than ever to ensure diverse regional concerns are well-articulated and integrated into national action in order to deal with critical 21st century challenges and to ensure a respected Canadian voice in world affairs.

Yet Canadians are being misled by our Conservative government into believing that mere tinkering -- nine year term limits, à la carte elections -- with a Senate structure dating back to the 19th century is sufficient, and by the opposition NDP and some provincial premiers that believe outright abolition of the Senate is even better.

Both the government and official Opposition are conspiring to dumb down a very important debate affecting the fundamental nature of the Canadian federation and our coherence as a nation. The choice presented between no Senate and a partially reformed Senate, is really not a choice at all. Both options lead to an increasingly dysfunctional and discredited Parliament.

Senate reform is too important a component of any serious plan for improving the functioning of Canadian democracy to be left to legislative fiat by shortsighted politicians. Rather, the people of Canada must be directly engaged in the debate over this vital issue and ultimately consulted through a national referendum.

Without a Senate with more democratic legitimacy, our national leaders have increasingly deferred to provincial premiers on matters of national concern in unaccountable federal-provincial negotiations. The national interest is too often now equated with the haphazard sum of disparate provincial government interests, dependent on highly improbable provincial government cooperation for even minimal lowest common denominator national standards or action.

The result is no national action on climate change, an increasing patchwork of healthcare policies, no national clean energy strategy, crumbling national infrastructure, a stalemate on pension reform. This ongoing drift toward national incoherence has not only failed Canadians but also led to Canada's increasing insignificance on the global stage. Among other things, we are ignored in international climate change discussions and no longer considered worthy of a UN Security Council seat. And with our recent infamous U.N. vote blocking the addition of asbestos as a hazardous chemical, assuring a few votes for the premier of Quebec and the prime minister trumped incalculable damage to Canada's international reputation and any semblance of moral leadership, relegating Canada to the sidelines of history along with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Vietnam.

The time is overdue to re-imagine a more robust, elected Senate that provides a valuable counterweight to the purely provincialist perspective voiced by individual premiers in current federal-provincial forums. To this end, we have to consider the role of the Senate in representing regional concerns in a more imaginative and truly democratic way. The Senate is not meant for representing the interests of regional economic and political elites as defined by provincial governments. Regionalism is not the same as provincialism. Regionalism at its best reflects the fact that in such a large and geographically diverse country as Canada, with a highly uneven population distribution, national policies will only be effective if regional concerns are acceptably integrated into a workable national framework. And this process will only find success if it is carried out in an open, transparent parliamentary forum committed to the best interests of Canada as a whole, and accountable to all Canadians, not just provincial premiers.

To engage Canadians, we must take the Senate reform debate to the people and away from the day-to-day operations of Parliament. A non-partisan commission of informed Canadians should be tasked with holding hearings across the country to listen to Canadians and explain the issues at stake and possible options for reform.

The commission would be mandated to come up with a serious reform proposal, within a reasonable time frame, that must involve an elected Senate with a new distribution of seats and new powers. Among other things, in the current Senate, the Western provinces are significantly underrepresented, and the Atlantic provinces, significantly overrepresented. A much more acceptable regional equilibrium in the Senate is required for the credible exercise of the explicit responsibility to represent regional concerns and to work with the House of Commons to produce feasible national action plans for everything from climate change strategies to health care, from infrastructure investment to clean energy. For example, this could mean progress on establishing a Canada-wide carbon price, and on implementing national health care policies that provide for greater consistency in quality and services across the country.

The elected Senate should also be specifically empowered as the forum to protect the interests of Quebec as the only majority French-speaking province, and the forum to bring transparency, principle and equity to the mess of federal-provincial fiscal transfers, hitherto confined to the black hole of federal-provincial negotiations.

Canadians must then vote on any proposal in a national referendum. Ratification cannot be left only to the first ministers who would be able to stifle all possible progress in the national interest by making their support for Senate reform contingent on a myriad of other parochial provincial demands, such as happened with the infamous Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. The prime minister's disingenuous claim that the May 2 election was somehow a referendum that provided the Conservatives with a strong mandate from Canadians for his Senate tinkering is disrespectful of Canadians.

Our national representatives need reminding that, at all times, whether during or in between elections, they govern in trust for the people of Canada and cannot shirk their democratic responsibility to engage Canadians in fundamental debates just because it might be inconvenient.