Canada

Daphne Bramham: It’s time to think again about the Senate and how it can stymie an elected government

Opinion: Canada’s unelected, unrepresentative Senate can veto every piece of legislation that comes before it. Is this really what Canadians want?

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One of the best things about the Senate is that Canadians hardly ever think about it.

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Year after year, decade after decade, it grinds along, debating legislation that it hardly ever vetoes and offering amendments that currently have about a 50-50 chance of being accepted.

It churns out worthy and often interesting reports that almost nobody ever reads, even though some of the country’s best experts have provided their thoughts.

It’s only when the country’s fault lines begin to re-emerge that Canadians seem to remember that for as long as it’s existed, the Senate has been a highly undemocratic, overpaid debating club that doesn’t begin to reflect the country’s demographics.

And, right now, we’ve got fault lines aplenty with a fourth wave of COVID overrunning some provincial health systems, serious economic problems in Alberta that predate the pandemic and an increasingly irritable public.

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So, let’s talk about the Senate and, in particular, its absolute veto on everything except the Constitution.

For what it’s worth, Albertans have barely quit raging about the unelected, ineffective and unequal Senate ever since the 1980s energy crisis created by Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s unpopular national energy program.

Alberta held its first senate “election” in 1989. Stanley Waters won and, to appease Conservative voters there, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney appointed Waters the following year.

The “election” tradition carries on Monday when Calgary residents will cast ballots during the municipal election for three “nominees” to replace retiring Sen. Doug Black.

(Thirteen people are running in a completely non-binding vote. And why not wager $4,000 on a deposit in the hope of a sinecure that currently has a base salary of $156,700 a year plus travel and housing allowances, and more if you’re on committees?)

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The senate is so badly skewed eastward that if seats were added to reflect population, Prince Edward Island’s six senators would be matched with six from the city of Vancouver.

As skewed, British Columbia, Canada’s third most populous province, has only six senators, four less than the 10 each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. And it’s been this way since 1915 when the last redistribution was done.

Even those six seats aren’t currently filled. There’s been a vacancy since November 2019 when Richard Neufeld reached the mandatory retirement age of 75.

And I challenge anyone other than the most ardent political watchers to name the remaining five.

(For the record, here they are in order of their retirement dates with the length of time they will have served: Former Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell in 2023 after 18 years; lawyer Mobina Jaffer in 2024 after 23 years; Bev Busson, first female RCMP commissioner in 2026 after 18 years; former Asia-Pacific Foundation CEO, Yuen Pau Woo in 2038 after 22 years; and, community activist Yonah Martin in 2040 after 31 years. All are unaffiliated except Martin who is deputy leader of the Conservatives in the senate.)

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In 2016, Justin Trudeau “freed” senators appointed by Liberal governments, detaching them from the party’s caucus. He also appointed a non-partisan advisory council to recommend new senators.

This resulted in the formation of the Independent Senators Group, which is now the largest group. They have no shared loyalties, aspirations or affiliations. They are unfettered by party discipline and untethered by tradition.

Great, you might think. Somebody in government ought to be independent and not under the whip of a party.

Except in what is supposed to be a modern, representative democracy, Canada has an unelected, unrepresentative debate club with the power to veto every piece of legislation that comes before it.

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It has the power to stymie the ability of an elected government to govern by blocking every policy, every budget, every bill.

Yes. Really.

Up until now, party discipline, tradition, custom or whatever has largely kept that impulse in check.

The veto has been used, but sparingly. The most recent vetoes all came in the 1990s and defeated Kim Campbell’s bill that would have recriminalized abortion, a bill that would have reorganized certain boards, commissions, agencies and tribunals, a bill related to Pearson International Airport, and a bill on criminals profiting from writing a book about their crimes.

That happened with the tradition of party discipline in play.

But as we’ve seen south of the border, traditions aren’t laws. And customs as routine as confirming the results of an election can be derailed — perhaps not easily, but certainly more easily than laws.

Canadians seem angry enough that the first-past-the-post system leaves many unrepresented. But it’s hard to imagine what might happen if an unelected Senate either deliberately or inadvertently starts flexing its muscles.

What if the majority of freethinking senators reach the conclusion that, for example, a government’s climate change plan hammered out with the support of another party doesn’t go far enough?

Who can we then say is really governing our country? Because it certainly won’t be the people.

[email protected]

Twitter: @bramham_daphne

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