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Why I do not support an elected Senate

What value would an elected Senate provide to Canada that the current Senate does not?

In my view, absolutely none. Indeed, I think an elected Senate would be more vocal and less valuable than what we have today. Given the choice, I would opt to abolish the Senate outright if the alternative were to devalue the House of Commons with an elected Senate.

An elected Senate is an empowered Senate. A Senate that is elected must keep itself relevant. Its very background as a house of "sober second thought" is thrown out the window if the sobriety of not needing to seek re-election or a post-term employment position is lost. The Senate is a house of sober second thought precisely because it is not elected, and its members need not seek employment when they are done. Elections break the former, and term limits break the latter.

Indeed, if I could change anything about the Senate, it would be to bar senators from having any other form of employment while sitting in the upper house.

The real flaw in our Senate is the same as the major flaw present in our lower house, and would not be rectified by election. The introduction of partisanship over principle or independent thought has devalued both houses and largely rendered them obsolete, with the bulk of our country's power in PMO, most of whose members are, I should point out, not elected. Any reform at any level has to be to return independent thought and decision-making to our representatives, where their opinions and consciences are more valuable than those of their parties, where debate is actually about influencing one another's opinions, ideas, and decisions.

If a senator must seek re-election, or seek employment at the end of their terms, their judgements are no longer "sober". Their decisions risk becoming clouded with self-interest. To be re-elected, they must conform to their party line, eliminating that very sobriety our bicameral system exists to provide. Their decisions become what is popular and not what is right. The Senate becomes another elected body, redundant in the presence of the Commons, with a need to assert its own relevance and damage the value of the Commons.

I am happy with the status quo for Senate appointments, and I would also be happy if premiers were given the opportunity to appoint senators, if only to break any single party's majority in that Senate, but electing senators would be a huge step backward for this country and in no way improve anything but the optics of the house of once-sober second thought.

The Senate as an appointed body exists as a check on the power of the House of Commons and the Prime Minister's Office. That balance of power would be completely gone with an elected Senate. Senators would have to watch their own backs rather than those of all Canadians. Today, Senate is not bound by rules of the House of Commons. There are no confidence bills, Conservative tactics over the crime bill notwithstanding, there are no time-limits on debate and committee research. The Prime Minister cannot railroad a bill through Senate. Bills passed for political expediency without so much as a proof-read by the lower house stop in the Senate for a careful re-read. This is what it means to be the house of "sober second thought".

Some have suggested in the extensive thread that spawned this post that in the 21st century, there should be no appointed electoral bodies. As the quality of debate and the strength of our democracy is weakened by partisanship and lack of substance, I argue that it is now, in the 21st century, more important than ever to have this appointed body, not vulnerable to political whim.

Electing the Senate is, like converting to Proportional Representation, a purely emotional and self-interested argument. It is intellectually dishonest, putting partisan interest before the good of our democracy and the effectiveness of our governing bodies. We have an elected body today. It is called the House of Commons. Electing the Senate makes little more sense than electing the Supreme Court who wield at least as much power, yet few would consider electing.

If we are serious about reforming the Senate, we should consider meaningful reform. Stripping partisan labels from members to ensure that each is there on their own merit and not as a function of a lower house party, would be meaningful reform worth pursuing. A difficult but existing means of removal for useless or AWOL Senators would also be an improvement. Requiring the unanimous consent of the House of Commons and the majority support of the Senate would probably be ok, for example. Senators are like tenured professors in that they have work to do that may be unpopular with their peers that must be done, and they need a strong defence to be able to pursue it. That defence is in their lifetime appointment and lack of need to seek re-election.

What do we gain from an elected Senate, really? Why would the Senate be anything more than a carbon copy of the partisan self-interest of the lower house? The Senate will need to make itself more relevant in order to capture the media attention needed for its members to be re-elected. A more relevant Senate is a more activist Senate. A more activist Senate risks trumping the power of the House of Commons rather than only checking it. An elected Senate will be nothing more than another lower house, more than ever subject to the direction of the PMO and party whips. What we have works today works, but an elected Senate would be worse than no Senate. The "political legitimacy" of an elected Senate is nothing more than a straw man.

An elected Senate would, quite simply, hurt our democracy.

Posted at 07:06 on May 22, 2008

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Padraic writes at Thu May 22 10:22:33 EDT 2008...

I think many people would also prefer abolition over elections, but can't be bothered to change the status quo. Maybe Harper's efforts will actually trigger a bigger abolition movement.

David Graham (davidgraham.ca) writes at Thu May 22 10:26:12 EDT 2008...


I suspect that Harper's agenda is in fact to create an abolitionist movement, not a movement for elections. People like me who prefer the status quo for the Senate would rather abolish the Senate than elect it. People who prefer to elect the Senate would rather abolish the Senate than retain the status quo for it. Abolition then becomes the compromise position.

Cal writes at Thu May 22 12:13:24 EDT 2008...

I agree with your post. An elected Senate does not work with our current Constitution. Abolish it or leave it alone.

Mark Greenan (markgreenan.blogspot.com) writes at Thu May 22 13:49:14 EDT 2008...

Excellent post David.

I agree abolition is preferable to Senate elections. And I love the idea of banning Senators from outside employment. Can we extend that to serving on corporate boards?

You're absolutely right that election of Senators would impair its function as a chamber of sober second thought. I've had to pleasure of being on the floor for both Senate and House debates. The quality is MUCH higher in the former.

But I think you're off the mark when you write "the introduction of partisanship over principle or independent thought has devalued both houses and largely rendered them obsolete, with the bulk of our country's power in PMO, most of whose members are, I should point out, not elected".

I would place the blame for primarily on the electoral system. Arend Lijphart's Patterns of Democracy, in my mind the most comprehensive comparison of democratic political systems, quite clearly shows that the centralization of power in the executive is characteristic of majoritarian voting systems, like first-past-the-post.

Mark Greenan (markgreenan.blogspot.com) writes at Thu May 22 13:51:05 EDT 2008...

Also, in my view, arguing for Senate elections is, like the arguments for preserving our antiquated first-past-the-post, a purely emotional and self-interested argument. It is intellectually dishonest, putting partisan interest before the good of our democracy and the effectiveness of our governing bodies.

zoop writes at Thu May 22 14:39:37 EDT 2008...

Unbelievable, your entire argument is twisted and based on falsehoods. First and most important thing you forget is TERM LIMITS which would remove all the electoral nastiness since Senators can only serve one term. Senators would be just as free as they are now to take the high ground, or to block the will of the House of Commons as they do now.

Your fear of the electorate demonstrates your elitism. If you are afraid of the kinds of Senators democracy will produce, then your party can help by running quality candidates. Its called democracy, but elitists such as yourself always fail to recognize it.

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