Let Canadian Senate die of attrition
TheStar.com – Opinion – Contrary to public belief, there is a simple way to put an end to the Senate: stop appointing members.
Nov 14 2013. By: Carol Goar
There is a foolproof way to abolish the Senate.
All it requires is an unequivocal commitment from every current and future candidate for the Prime Minister’s office never to appoint a senator.
It would take time — but not as much as you might think. If Stephen Harper had pledged when he took office in 2006 to forswear Senate appointments, there would be 57 vacancies in the 105-seat upper chamber of Parliament today.
If he were to stop appointing senators now, there would be 11 vacancies (more in the event of criminal convictions) by the end of his current term.
If all three national party leaders made a commitment in the 2015 election to appoint no senators, there would be 38 vacancies by 2019 — probably more taking into account voluntary departures and deaths.
If the same tripartisan resolve prevailed in the 2019 election, there would be at least 81 empty seats within 10 years. That would still be enough senators for a quorum — only 15 members are required to convene a meeting of the upper house — but it’s unlikely the last two dozen stragglers would want to prop up a dying institution.
The process could be accelerated with voluntary buyouts.
This approach would not solve Harper’s immediate political problem: a still-unfolding Senate expense scandal involving three of his highest profile appointees and his most senior aides. Nor would it satisfy those who want the Senate abolished by fiat.
But it is a simple, effective way to resolve a dilemma that has stymied politicians, lawyers and academics for generations. Best of all, it would put power where it belongs: in the hands of the people. If Canadians genuinely believe the Senate has no useful role in their system of government, all they have to do is vote against any federal party leader who refuses to guarantee that he/she will make no appointments to the upper house.
If this seems naive, think back 20 years. It seemed inconceivable then that any political leader would relinquish his/her power to raise taxes at will. Today no politician dares increase taxes, even as concerns mount that government austerity has gone too far.
It is also worth remembering that seven provinces — Ontario (then known as Upper Canada), Quebec, Manitoba, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island — once had upper legislative chambers. None exist today.
History has a way of imbuing decisions made by querulous, self-interested politicians with a mythic quality. Canada’s appointed Senate was the product of partisan haggling between Sir John A. Macdonald and George Brown over the terms of Confederation. Brown, a Liberal, fought for an appointed upper chamber, thinking it would deprive Macdonald’s moneyed friends of the legitimacy and stature that flowed from an earned mandate. At the same time, he argued against an upper chamber for Ontario because he did not think it was important enough to preserve.
There was nothing elegant or far-sighted about Brown’s reasoning. It served his interests at the time. Within less than 10 years his own party, led by his protégé, Prime Minister Alexander Mackenzie, wanted to extricate itself — and Canada — from the arrangements Brown had made.
He tried, as did many of the prime ministers who followed him. None succeeded.
As defenders of the Senate point out, it has made a contribution to the affairs of the nation: drafting thoughtful reports, holding respectful public hearings, looking into complex, long-term issues and, in its better days, demonstrating civility and cross-party co-operation in politics.
But in recent years, the excesses of prominent senators, their assumption of entitlement to public funds, and the “jobs for the boys” mentality articulated by former prime minister Brian Mulroney and exemplified by Harper have pushed many once-ambivalent Canadians into the abolitionist camp.
If they are serious, they have the means to achieve what they want.
If Harper is serious about abolition, he doesn’t have to wait for permission from the Supreme Court, the premiers or anyone else. He can publicly announce right now that he has made his last Senate appointment — ever.
Historical research provided by Star librarian Astrid Lange.
< http://www.thestar.com/opinion/2013/11/14/let_canadian_senate_die_of_attrition_goar.html >