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Why the Senate shouldn’t organize by region

By Senator Paul J. Massicotte      

I worry that regional caucuses would push apart senators, lead to the resurgence of old conflicts, and supplant the national interest.

Senators could organize themselves into “like-minded” groups, based on things like a common philosophy or shared objectives, writes Senator Paul J. Massicotte. The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright

Canada’s Senate is entering a period of transformation unlike any it has seen since its careful construction at Confederation.

The Special Senate Committee on Modernization—which released its first report last month—has been carefully studying what changes can strengthen Canada’s Upper Chamber and prepare it for the 21st century.

As a member of the committee, I’ve had to the privilege to contemplate and contribute to this dynamic evolution.

Change is clearly necessary, but we must be cautious to ensure that it is for the betterment of the country and not just for its own sake.

One suggestion that has been discussed is whether to replace partisan caucuses with regional caucuses.

And so we ask ourselves: should senators—or all parliamentarians even—think first and foremost of provincial interests?

Let’s look back to 1867.

Senators’ positions were framed in the context of their regions. Quebecers feared assimilation by the dominant English culture., and Maritimers worried their voices would be drowned out by heavily-populated Ontario and Quebec.

But this was a time when the immensity that is Canada contained a dispersed and unconnected population, fearful and skeptical of a centralized government in far-away Ottawa.

It could take weeks to travel from the Maritimes to Ontario—and that would be during the summer months.

Furthermore, legislative and economic powers were very centralized at the time.

Since then, infrastructure has bound our provinces together, and through federal-provincial agreements and Supreme Court rulings, provincial governments have been vastly empowered.

So in today’s context, I worry that regional caucuses would push apart senators, lead to the resurgence of old conflicts, and supplant the national interest.

In our role as legislators I believe that senators should take a broader perspective by bridging divisions and thinking in the long term.

Nevertheless, I do not believe at all that our only other choice is to continue with business as usual and the Westminster model of Parliament, where certain senators are designated to be always in favour of government legislation and others are organized to be always against it.

Canadians should benefit fully from senators’ broad range of experiences and competences instead of being subjected to theatrics from partisans whose minds are already made up.

The loss in credibility from a pre-programmed response is the same in everyday life. How could anyone trust and accept the opinion of a referee, umpire, judge, or even a friend when you know he or she is biased, prejudiced, or has an axe to grind?

Party should never trump country. Canadians deserve better.

So why not allow all senators the freedom to contribute as best they can to reach the best decisions and craft the strongest legislation?

More open debate and discussion in the Senate will improve legislation and benefit Canadians—and in fact, this more closely resembles the spirit of the Red Chamber as the Fathers of Confederation envisioned.

This rebirth has already begun.

Just look at our most recent debates on physician-assisted dying legislation. Senators—partisan and non-partisan alike—had frank and thoughtful debates about this complex issue.

It led to amendments that were accepted by the House of Commons.

That’s sober second thought.

To encourage this in future, I think we should consider and even experiment with other organizational models.

Senators could organize themselves into “like-minded” groups, based on things like a common philosophy or shared objectives.

And if some senators wish to remain in partisan caucuses, that’s fine too. In my experience, partisan senators are already largely aligned on the basis of shared principles and goals.

The modernization committee’s proposed changes will only improve the quality of debate in our country and revitalize Canada’s Parliament.

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