Koopmans: Reform the Senate? Is it really needed?

Robert Koopmans / Kamloops Daily News
February 16, 2013 01:00 AM

There has been much talk in recent days about transforming -maybe even eliminating - Canada's Senate.

It seems Conservative senator Patrick Brazeau's recent behaviour has called into question the value of the whole operation. Brazeau, who faces assault charges stemming from allegations of domestic abuse, was the youngest Canadian ever to sit in the upper house. Some question whether he should ever have been appointed at all.

To question the fate of the Senate based on the behaviour - reckless, criminal, incompetent or otherwise - of individuals however, is a mistake. Better to consider the Senate with its larger purpose in mind, with the reason it exists in the first place.

In the book, Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew, political science professor Janet Ajzenstat outlines the history of Canada's upper house and its reasons for being. Ultimately, the house was intended to serve as a last line of defence against different kinds of democratic tyrants. First, there is the power of the one - a Prime Minister bent on despotic rule. There is the oligarchic power that majority rule can vest in the hands of the Cabinet or a political party. Lastly, there is the tyrant our forefathers aptly labelled "unbridled democracy." Those who guided Canada in its infancy also feared the voting masses, knowing a pigheaded electorate could run roughshod over minority interests.

"In all countries, the rights of the majority take care of themselves," said Canada's first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. "Only in countries . . . safe from . . . unbridled democracy (are) the rights of the minority regarded."

Cynics might suggest "minority interest" was a different way of saying "the wealthy elite." The requirement that a senator own $4,000 in real property is a throwback to a time when such was a large sum, ensuring only the well-off could serve, unlike the House of Commons where anyone could win fast favour with the poor and unwashed. But senators were also allocated by region, largely tempering the accusation. The reality is more likely that the well-heeled were viewed as more intellectual, informed and politically responsible.

Senators were appointed - not elected - with no end to terms because the power to reign in bad government or overenthusiastic citizens was seen as necessary and real. Appointments created political independence.

Fast forward a century and a few decades. Today the Senate is the home of the politically connected, with seats conferred upon those our ruling parties deem respectable enough to be handed the duty and honour of service, as well as worthy enough to receive the upper house's substantial rewards.

The big question is - does the Senate continue to fulfill a protective function? If not, what needs to change?

Will elected representation serve to create a stronger check against the power of the House of Commons? Not necessarily. We don't need a second House of Commons. Abolishing the upper house seems the biggest mistake of all. Without an independent Senate, there is no last line of defence - no way to check the power of the one, the few or the many. We need safeguards against democracy's potential ills. Our forefathers were wise enough to know that.


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