Senate reform: It may be better to keep all the turkeys in one cage

David T Jones

“Useless as tits on a boar hog.” Southern slang

And some Canadians certainly so identify their Senate.

But, to offer another folk expression, “Give a dog a bad name and you have a bad dog.”

Because the Senate Canada could have is not the Senate that it does have.

Indeed, in political science/government terms, the Senate is virtually equal in power to the House. Other than money bills (restricted to the House), the Senate can offer legislation on any subject, and its concurrence is required for bills passed by the House. Much like the observation originally accorded the U.S. Senate, Canada's first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, described it as a body of "sober second thought" that would curb "democratic excesses." And, again akin to the U.S. Senate, it provides “regional” rather than “rep by pop” political presence in Parliament.

Indeed, the Senate’s “sober second thought” is not a 19th century throw-away characterization. The Senate has provided serious studies on physical/mental health care (Kirby Commission) and several analyses over the decades of Canadian news media. And one can argue that its rather rare defeats of House legislation (rejecting draconian reductions in greenhouse gas emissions in December 2010) can be regarded as auspicious judgments.

But this theoretical Senate — vigorous, engaged, creative, politically powerful — doesn’t exist. Essentially, it doesn’t exist due to reticence by senators who believe their appointed status militates against political equality with the democratically-elected House. This self-emasculation has resulted in predictable scorn and contempt from the spectrum of political observers. If you don’t use your powers, others will want to take them away and/or find alternatives to use them.

Consequently, the Senate now has a “dumping ground” reputation. The media delights in spotlighting assorted “bag men,” second-tier defeated politicians, hair dressers, hockey heroes, and others with flimsy credentials beyond party loyalty. But every society has its fully plumed “turkeys” — and the Senate is Canada’s turkey farm. It is one level up from a Companion of the “Order of Canada” and pays better. The occasional “eagle” in the flock goes largely unnoticed.

Thus the current investigations of financial irregularities in housing allowances has tempest-in-teapot dimensions. They appear more the equivalent of jaywalking by a couple of hardly larcenous senators who lacked good accountants to handle convoluted attendance and residence rules. They are not Andy Thompson, who spent most of his Senate tenure living in Mexico or Raymond Lavigne convicted of fraud and breach of trust. But since senators are not elected and have tenure until age 75, they lack the protective sanction of democratic selection and, consequently, are juicier “gotcha” targets for media who no longer have Idle no More to debate/deflate.

But What to Do? The essence of the problem lies in the disproportionate power constitutionally accorded the Maritime provinces (24 seats) in comparison to Canada west of the Ontario border (also 24 seats). Most egregiously, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have 10 senators while Alberta and B.C. have six each. Consequently, a key Reform Party objective was for constitutional reform creating a “Triple E” (equal, elected, effective) Senate. Most observers now believe it would be easier to secure Middle East Peace than devise such an outcome for Canadian politics.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has fiddled the edges of the problem. He has encouraged provinces to elect senators-in-waiting, to be appointed when vacancies occur. Only Alberta has embraced the option. And he has extracted paper promises from appointees to serve only eight years — but there is no legal sanction for anyone deciding to stay (and perhaps a political disincentive if the Tories are defeated).

[ Previous David vs. David: Effective, but a long, rocky road ahead for NDP ]

Now Harper has requested a Supreme Court advisory opinion regarding possible changes in the status of the Senate not requiring full constitutional review. One question implicitly posed was whether an amendment passed by seven provinces comprising 50 percent of the Canadian population could abolish the Senate? (The NDP and Bloc Quebecois are on record favoring abolition).

But be careful what you ask for — you may get it.

The United States does it differently. We send our turkeys to Embassies where having stuffed wallets at least helps with “representational” activity. Then the professional diplomats pray with fingers crossed that they can keep their ambassador from crossing the line from embarrassment to disgrace. So Canadians should note that getting rid of the Senate wouldn’t eliminate the need to find rewards for turkeys — and putting them all in one cage (the Senate) prevents them from flying about the globe defecating on your foreign policy.

David T. Jones is a retired State Department Senior Foreign Service Career Officer and a frequent contributor to American Diplomacy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving for the Army Chief of Staff. He is co-author of Uneasy Neighbor(u)rs, a study of American-Canadian bilateral concerns and has published several hundred articles, columns, and reviews on U.S. - Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy.