Canada’s Senate is best the way it is. Suggesting it lacks legitimacy because it is unelected is to submit to Hugh Segal’s way of thinking. What is being described as a lack of democratic legitimacy is in fact a virtue which allows the Senate to do important work.
The Senate is a revising Chamber, not an adversarial House of the provinces or a second chamber of partisan party politics that it would be if Senators were elected.
Theoretically, the Senate’s power and privilege equal the Commons, but because they are appointed Senators they are reluctant to exercise them fully except where the nation’s interests and democracy might be imperiled by a ruthless government or a willful Prime Minister.
The proper role of the Senate is as a check on the excesses of partisanship in the elected Commons, especially as manifested in the excessive powers of the Prime Minister. The Canadian Constitution refers to this duty to revise as “Sober Second Thought.”
Suggesting, further, that British Columbia and the West are under-represented is to submit to another old error, an error shamefully exploited by Preston Manning and Stephen Harper in their Reform Party days. Canada’s four Senate divisions are represented equally by 24 Senators regardless of population; in fact, the four Western provinces together have a significantly smaller total population than Ontario and a slightly larger population than Quebec. References to Prince Edward Island and Atlantic Canada notwithstanding, it is Albertan and B.C. jealousy of Central Canada which drives western calls for Senate Reform: it is instructive that suggestions that B.C. is under-represented never point out that Manitoba and Saskatchewan are equally represented in the western division despite having populations the size of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Giving B.C. more seats would have the same inequitable effect as taking seats away from the smaller Western and Atlantic provinces.
Senate appointments were intended by the Fathers of Confederation to provide regional representation to balance representation by population in the Commons and to specifically protect us against the threat to national unity posed by democratically illegitimate accountability to the provinces, as would be the case with provincial Senate elections and redistribution of seats to the provinces according to population instead of by region. Ironically, these are the very conditions existing in pre-Confederation Canada that our present Senate arrangements, enshrined in Canada’s Constitution, were designed to remedy.
Prime Minister Harper’s lack of commitment to Canada’s Constitution, Parliamentary democracy and Canadian federalism will surprise no one who knows his history, but I am surprised that Sen. Segal is willing to ride this old Reform Party hobby horse as a token Tory. For, ironically, it violates core, philosophically conservative principles intended to provide a support of national unity and a check on the excesses of partisan elected politicians in the Commons, meaning particularly in the 21st century the Prime Minister and Cabinet.
Brian Marlatt White Rock, B.C.
(The letter-writer is a founding member of the Progressive Canadian Party.)
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