Thursday, March 05, 2009

Senate Reform

Paul Wells of Maclean's provides a conversation on Senate reform between two would-be Senators and the prime minister that nicely captures the intellectual collapse of the whole Senate Reform movement.
Byfield: Why does Canada need a Senate at all, and why should it be elected?
Harper: Why do we need a Senate at all? I’d say there are at least two reasons. First and foremost, the Senate exists to provide regional representation in Parliament.... Second, the Senate’s traditional “sober second thought” function is also valuable....
But we have regional representation in Parliament, from the MPs. The House is and always will be more representative of Canada than the Senate because it is elected on the principle of representation-by-population (manipulated a bit at the edges, true), something that is anathema to Senate reformers. And the regions are also well represented by the provinces, which have vast constitutional powers to represent the interests of their people.

The Prime Minister moves from his second point, about sober second thought, to the argument that since only elected representatives are legitimate, the Senate must be elected.

But that is precisely the legitimacy the Canadian founders wanted to withhold from the Senators, and they were right.The Senate is not a representative house in its present form, and the Triple-E form, with equal numbers from each province, would be even less so. (The discussants here seem prepared to accept the present distribution of Senate seats, so long as they are elected.)

It is not appropriate for the Senate, elected or not, to have the power to resist the will of the people of Canada as expressed by the representative House of Commons, except in the very limited sober second thought way it has today. The Canadian founders created an non-elective Senate not because they resisted democracy, but because they knew keeping the Senate weak would be a cornerstone of democracy. And making it non-elective was the guarantee that it would be weak.

I don't mean to be entirely negative about the campaign for Senate reform. It expresses a frustration with the democratic deficit that I share. But the democratic problem is in the way the House works, not in the Senate, and we cannot fix the House in the Senate. Senate Reform has always been a diversion from the real issues.

Update: In light of the comment (below, and thanks), Paul Wells does specify that this interview is not his own work but something that arrived in his mailbox from "the Alberta Caucus for Senate Reform." He's just letting us see it, I think.
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