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The case for abolishing the Canadian Senate

by Archives October 19, 2005

WINNIPEG (CUP) — According to Link Byfield, one of four Albertan ‘senators-in-waiting,’ “the objectionable thing about the Canadian Senate is not, for the most part, who sits in it, but that the Senators owe their loyalty and gratitude to the man and party that appointed them, not to their province.”

Although the view that the Senate ought to represent provincial interests is shared by many, particularly those who favour the Triple E senate-elected, equal, effective-it is wrongheaded. What is truly objectionable is that the Senate exists at all.

The Fathers of Confederation saw the Senate as serving two purposes. First, it was to provide for a “sober second thought” regarding the decisions reached by the elected House of Commons. Second, it was to provide for equal regional representation.

Yet, Byfield argues that the Senate is irrelevant to our political process since it fulfils neither of these roles. Its irrelevance lies in the method of selection-appointment by the Prime Minister.

As a chamber of “sober second thought” it is irrelevant because in a democracy, decisions regarding policy ought to be made by elected officials.

As a regional representative, it is irrelevant because senators owe their allegiance to the prime minister who appointed them rather than the province they represent.

Byfield’s solution to this irrelevance is to allow senators to be elected by provincial parties. Since the senators would then be independent of party leaders in the House of Commons, he feels they would be able to fulfill two important roles.

First, it would allow senators to “monitor the honesty and competence of the government,” and second, it would ensure that they speak for the “cultural and economic interests of the provinces that elected them.”

In one fell swoop, Byfield has dealt with the problems of legitimacy (elected) and provincial representation (equality). Effectiveness cannot be too far behind. But this simply does not follow.

The 1867 decision to combine parliamentary institutions within a federal system of government had an important impact on the makeup and structure of the Senate.

In the Canadian system, under the principle of responsible government, since cabinet is responsible to the democratically elected members of the House of Commons, there is no separation of powers between the executive and the legislature.

This reality makes it difficult to give the Senate any effective powers, regardless of whether or not it was elected.

And do we really want equal representation from each province? Under Byfield’s proposal, the six smallest provinces and territories representing only 11 per cent of the nation’s population would hold a majority in the Senate, while the two largest provinces representing 62 per cent of Canada’s population would have 12 of the 66 seats in the Senate.

So under his proposal, national health-care standards, for example, would not become law unless these senators agree, regardless of whether the overwhelming majority of Canadians want it.

This hardly seems legitimate in a democratic society. And would equal representation from the provinces really fulfill the role Byfield sees for senators?

Our elected officials at the national level are there to do what is best for the country. Let the provinces with their elected governments look after provincial interests.

Federalism requires neither that we have a senate nor that the less populous provinces have an equal vote in it. It only concerns what powers the federal government does or does not have vis-

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