Weekly Commentary  

Our Prime Minister and our Government has made a commitment to reform the so-called 'Red Chamber'.  (Photo: Flickr user, chocolatedisco)
Our Prime Minister and our Government has made a commitment to reform the so-called 'Red Chamber'. (Photo: Flickr user, chocolatedisco)

Unelected Senate

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Trivia Question: How many democratic countries around the world have an unelected Senate?

Answer. Hardly any.

How did this happen? How does Canada wind up with the distinction of having Senators which are appointed by the sitting Prime Minister, instead of being elected by 'the people'?

It goes all the way back to our founding as a nation. It was part of the negotiation process necessary to get the first group of provinces onside and inside. We often hear that there was an expressed need for a legislative body of 'sober second thought' (that begs the question of course of whether the MP's in the House of Commons were not considered sober enough).

There was also the intent to protect the rights of property owners. In 1867 the majority of people eligible to vote (men only, dumb idea) did not own their own homes. That meant property owners would be drastically under represented. Hence, the requirement which remains in our Constitution today that a Senator must be at least 30 years old and an owner of property.

Over the decades, as our democratic processes evolved, it became a source of growing irritation that unelected Senators could actually do things like pass their own legislation and amend or delay legislation that had been passed by elected Members of Parliament.

The number of Senators allocated to each province also became a major point of consternation, especially from Western provinces. This Western ire is driven by the fact that the Senators in the West can be outvoted by the numbers in Ontario and Quebec.

The other troubling aspect of the process is that a Senator can serve uninterrupted until the age of 75, after being appointed as young as 30. All this and never having to be accountable to the voters.

Before I go any further let me be clear on something. I am not a basher of Senators. Senators tend to be decent, hard working citizens. They also are passionate Canadians who care about the country. It's a case of good people being stuck in a bad system and before we get too angry at them for accepting the job, I have a question for you. Would you turn down an offer to sit in the Senate if the Prime Minister asked you to?

At any rate, our Prime Minister and our Government has made a commitment to reform the so-called 'Red Chamber' (referred to as 'red' because of the carpet, not the fact that it's a majority of Liberals).

Here's the tricky part. To do a complete overhaul of the Senate would require changing the Constitution of Canada. Opening the Charter and the British North America Act is a huge non-starter for a lot of reasons too lengthy for this column. So the PM is reforming it one Senator at a time.

To deal with the problem of it being a life-long position the Prime Minister takes an innovative approach. Whomever the Prime Minister appoints must vow to step down after 8 years, no exceptions, no excuses. So each person he recently appointed, along with the ones he appointed earlier, will be done in 8 years. That's a major change.

Then there's the little (big) matter of being unelected. The Prime Minister has invited Premiers to come up with a way of getting their own citizens to elect the person of their choice within their own province. Then the Prime Minister will promise to put them in the Senate.

Prime Minister Harper is the first in Canadian history willing to give up the very powerful tool (some say 'weapon') of being able to use the appointment process for his own political purpose.

So far only Alberta has responded by coming up with their own Senate election. They allow for the names of Senate candidates to be added to the ballots during their municipal elections. The province picks up the administration costs and the people decide who their Senator will be.

The last time they did this the winner was Bert Brown. The Prime Minister kept his word and appointed him to the Senate. He sits today in that Chamber, quite proud to be the only elected Senator in that place of over 100 appointees.

I look forward to the day when the citizens of every province would ask that their provincial governments also set up a democratic Senate election process. This would mean they could pick their own Citizens' Choice as the Senator to speak up for them and be accountable to them, not Ottawa.

One more thing about the latest round of Senate appointees, each one has agreed to work hard from inside the Senate to push for reform. That means when the next federal election is called we may see senators stepping down from the Red Chamber and running for office.

That's progress.

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