The Canadian Senate: Abolition or Reform?

The Senate, in Canada, is very different powers than it is in the USA. The Canadian Senate has the power to block legislation that is passed in the House of Commons, but they do not have the power to amend or create legislation that appropriates public funds or imposes taxes. Based on this rationale the Senate is supposed to provide “sober second thought” as their model of debate is more flexible and allows them to examine legislation in greater detail and ensure that the House of Commons has not passed any problematic legislation. Furthermore, Senators are appointed from the party faithful behind closed doors, without any significant public scrutiny, and their term lasts until they are 75 years old.

However, in the last 25 years, the Senate has not exercise this power often and has tended to simply rubberstamp nearly all legislation that has been passed by the House of Commons. This has lead a large portion of Canadians, including Thomas Mulcair and the New Democratic Party, to call for the abolition of the Senate. For many, the Senate is just a wasteful, useless institution that we would be better off without.

Furthermore, in light of a very public Senate scandal involving the misuse of funds by current Senators such as Mike Duffy, the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who, earlier in his life had supported a Triple E Senate (Elected, Effective, Equal), has now suggested that he will not appoint new senators and that the provinces need to come up a solution to the Senate whether it be through comprehensive reform or outright abolition. The only major party to explicitly propose reform of the senate, as opposed to abolition have been the Canadian Liberals, who at this point in the run up to the October 19th election look to be a distant third behind the NDP and the Conservative Party of Canada.

Now, the likelihood of abolition of the Senate is slim as this would require an amendment to the constitution which requires negotiation with the provinces and tends to be an extremely arduous process which is politically dangerous because of the time and effort required, and the difficulty of achieving success. Abolishing the Senate is not something that the House of Commons and the existing Senate could pass by legislative fiat at the Federal level. But nonetheless it shows the popularity of the notion of the abolition of the Senate that one of the major parties is explicitly speaking out in favour of abolition, while another major party seems to be suggesting that abolition is a legitimate option if reform proves impossible.

All of these issues around the Senate raise the question of whether reform of some kind is preferable to abolition. While, I support many elements of the NDP`s platform, I think that even if the Federal government could easily abolish the Senate without having to pursue constitutional amendment this would be a misguided choice. This would be misguided as Canada`s House of Commons by its very nature requires a check on its authority and making the notion of sober second thought effective through the Senate would provide this check. Furthermore, there are no strong reasons, in principle, why we could not make the idea of sober second thought effective through reforming the Senate.

The partisans of abolition will typically say that there are a couple of factors which lead to the necessity of abolition. The first of these is that the current incarnation of the Senate does not add much value as it generally just rubberstamps legislation and thus it is a waste of taxpayer money to support this body. This critique is valid of the current Senate, but it mistakenly assumes that reform could not render the Senate more useful, so on its own it does not establish that Senate abolition is necessary.

Similarly, one other reason proponents of Senate abolition put forward is that the body is unnecessary, as the only kind of bodies that have a legitimate claim to rule, are ones that are democratically elected and the Senate is not. Furthermore, these partisans of abolition would say even if the Senate were elected, this would just create unnecessary duplication between the two chambers, and that a single elected house can provide sufficient popular control through electoral politics to ensure that legislation that is passed reflects the will of the people. Consequently, even an elected Senate would not be particularly valuable, as it would just duplicate the function of the House of Commons.

Now, defenders of an elected Senate have legitimate responses to these criticisms, but for the sake of brevity I will not get into these. I think if we properly understand the role the Senate is supposed to play today, we will see that the direction of reform lies not towards an elected Senate, but to reforming the Senate along democratic lines that avoid the demagoguery and partisanship inherent in electoral party politics. I have already explicitly responded to the first argument in favour of Senate abolition, but in order to respond to the second we need more deeply understand the nature of Canada`s governing system and what democratic function the House of Commons actually plays.

As I have mentioned in earlier blogs, the Canadian political system while democratic, tends to put a lot of power in the hands of the Executive and of the Parties. Due to the strength of party discipline in Canada, when voting on bills that involve appropriation of public funds or taxes all MPs that belong to parties are forced to vote with their party, rather than in the interests of their constituents. If MPs refuse to follow the party line when they vote they are expelled from the party and must sit as independents in the House of Commons.

Furthermore, the Prime Minister who fulfills the Executive function of the Federal government has a great deal of power. He has the power to select the Cabinet, who are then responsible for drafting most bills and largely control the legislative agenda, and while the Governor General formally selects Senators he or she does so on the basis of the guidance of the Prime Minister. Thus, in the context of a majority government, the Prime Minister is more like a constitutional monarch than anything else, as the only thing that blocks his will are existing laws and the courts. His party does not have power over him or her, and he largely drives the form that the Senate and Cabinet takes and consequently controls the direction of legislation.

Also, given that Canada adopts a first-past-the-post voting system Members of Parliament do not need to get a majority of votes to win a seat, but merely a plurality of votes to get their seat. In aggregate this tends to mean that the ruling party may only have received 40% of the vote or less and yet have a majority of the seats, because they were able to get the plurality of votes in enough ridings. However, the NDP, the main proponents of Senate abolition, have also come out in favour of electoral reform to move to a more representative and fair form of voting. So while the presence of the first-past-the-post system currently does impact the way that the House of Commons operates I will avoid including this element of the current landscape and assume that Senate abolition, or Senate reform, will go along with a change to fairer form of democratic representation in the House of Commons.

Given the strength of the Executive in Canada, and the situation of party discipline a unicameral parliament, even one that was very representative of the people`s party preferences, would still be deeply problematic and require a check by a less partisan body. In a situation with strong party discipline what dominates a legislative body is not a conversation between citizens elected to represent their constituents. Instead what is dominant is a battle between factions represented by the party apparatus, which tend to be dominated by elites of all kinds. What decides how a representative should vote is not his or her own judgment, but the ideological commodity that the party is trying to sell to the people, and this does not capture the spirit or essence of democratic governance as it is a form of elite rule.

Now, there are certainly merits to a system with strong party discipline as it is quite expedient and avoids the tendency in systems with weaker party discipline for people to be bought off through amendments to a bill as people must follow the party. But the House of Commons fails to exemplify the spirit of citizens coming together to deliberate about what is in the best interest of the people; this characteristic seems to me to be essential to democracy and any system that lacks it will be the worse for it. For what makes democracy the best form of government is not that 51% rule over 49%, but that under the best conditions it can represent a form of rule which is based on persuasion in which we come together to figure out the best way of doing things that serves the public interest. In this form of rule politics is not a war by other means, but a form of cooperation towards our common ends. A form of rule constituted by dialogue and cooperation seems far more reconcilable with individual freedom, than one in which the largest subset of the population rules, as the rule of an arbitrary majority is not necessarily that different from the rule of a tyrant. No doubt, my notion of dialogue and cooperation aimed at the common good is quite vague, but I think it captures some of our fundamental intuitions about democracy, and thus any form of democratic governance that fails to deal with those intuitions should be found wanting.

Unlike the House of Commons, if reformed the Senate could be a governmental body that involves citizens coming together to cooperatively provide sober second thought for legislation passed by the more partisan House of Commons. Of course much reform would be required in this area for this to occur as currently Senators tend to be elites and representatives of parties, rather than ordinary citizens, and are selected for exceedingly long terms. One way to develop a senate that captures the spirit of citizens coming together to examine legislation judiciously to provide oversight to the House of Commons is the notion of using random selection, or what is commonly referred to as sortition or allotment to select Senators. We tend to see democracy as lying in electing people largely because our consciousness has become so commodified that we see our most fundamental trait as that of choosing a product, or a candidate, but arguably a more democratic approach is to have positions of authority occupied based on the principle of drawing lots. This is the approach that Athens widely used, and we find a modified form of it sufficient for jury selection. This approach ensure that not only the charismatic, wealthy and best speakers rule, but all segment of the populace participate in rule, rather than merely participating in elections. Therefore, a principle of allotment could be setup to ensure that the Senate was representative in terms of gender, ethnicity and class, and not directly connected to party politics. Furthermore, Senators could be selected to participate over short terms, with new Senators being selected thereafter. This form of selection ensures Senators do not have to worry about re-election or loyalty to a party; they need only exercise their best judgment and work with their fellow senators, rather than trying to score point for their party or themselves, and thus they are truly able to provide sober second thought. This proposal, is very much influenced and based on the proposal that Claudia Chwalisz wrote about in the Globe and Mail, earlier this year in her article entitled “Replace this archaic institution with a citizen`s senate,“ and would serve as an important non-partisan democratic counterweight to the legislation put forth by the partisan and politically motivated House of Commons.

The proposal put forward by myself here, and Chwalisz in her article, speaks to the fact that the problem with our Senate is not that we have no need for a body to provide sober second thought on legislation, but that the current incarnation of the Senate because of its institutional foundations cannot play the role of providing oversight and sober second thought. Hence a reformed Senate need not simply duplicate the role played by the House of Commons, and thus we have further options between abolishing the Senate, making it elected or leaving it as it is now.

Works Cited
Geddes, John. “Senate reform? There`s just the teensy problem of the Constitution.” MacLeans. 31 July 2015: Web. http://www.macleans.ca/politics/ottawa/senate-reform-theres-just-the-teensy-problem-of-the-constitution/
Chwalisz, Claudia. “Replace this archaic institution with a citizen`s senate.” The Globe and Mail. 15 June 2015: Web. http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-debate/replace-this-archaic-institution-with-a-citizens-senate/article24945037/
Milewski, Terry. “Abolition or attrition? Mulcair and Harper offer different paths to Senate end game.“ CBC News. 25 July 2015. Web. http://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/abolition-or-attrition-mulcair-and-harper-offer-different-paths-to-senate-end-game-1.3167577
Bryden, Joan. “Trudeau’s Senate Plan Lauded, Harper Dissed By Western Think Tank.“ Huffington Post. 31 January 2014. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2014/01/31/trudeau-senate-harper-think-tank_n_4700454.html

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2015 Alberta Election: Citizenship, Community and Economic Interests

While I sometimes write about politics on this blog I rarely talk about concrete the political events that occur in my more immediate community, but, Alberta, the province that I live in, is currently in the lead up to a provincial election so I would like to say a little about some events that have transpired. The events of this election have brought to light an interesting question regarding the nature of political community; they have raised the question of whether political communities exist for the sake of economic interests. But, before I turn to this specific issue I would like to give a little bit of background about Alberta.

For those who are unaware Alberta is often thought of as the Texas of Canada in that it is arguably the most conservative province in the country and its economy relies heavily on agriculture, cattle ranching and most of all the extraction of oil and natural gas. The picture of Alberta as a very conservative region is further engrained by the fact that the Progressive Conservative Party, a centre-right party, has ruled Alberta for 44 consecutive years. This shows that Alberta seems to tend to be both ideologically conservative and conservative in its unwillingness to elect other political parties. This image may not be entirely accurate, but it is certainly the overriding image of Alberta within Canadian political culture.

In the upcoming election on May 5th, in somewhat of a shock, the centre-left New Democratic Party (NDP) seems to be in the lead in most polls. I say this is somewhat of a shock, rather than a complete shock, because while the NDP have never been particularly strong in Alberta, and have typically been the third most popular party rather than the main opposition, the circumstances in Alberta at the moment have been fortuitous for the Alberta NDP. But these particular circumstances are not relevant for this discussion as in this entry I am not interested in discussing what caused the NDP to gain in popularity, but what the reaction by certain elements of the Alberta community to a possible NDP government illuminates.

In light of the fear of a the election of a NDP government business leaders and pundits have suggested that this will cause businesses to leave Alberta and relocate elsewhere as the NDP have campaigned on reviewing the structure of natural resource (oil) revenue, raising corporate taxes and raising personal income taxes for wealthy Albertans. (Kleiss) It should be noted here that Alberta currently has by far the lowest provincial tax regime within Canada. The sentiment expressed by business leaders and pundits suggests a view of politics as being bound together by nothing more than mutual economic advantage. According to this understanding of politics our membership in a political community is merely something that secures us from crime and violence so that we can maximize our economic prosperity. Consequently, according to this conception of politics when the conditions in one political community stop serving to maximize economic benefit there is nothing problematic about moving to another community that will better serve your economic interests. This view of politics is very prevalent and might be called the Economocentric view of politics because of its focus on economic interests above all else.

While the Economocentric view of politics is quite common when business leaders and pundits express it much of the response from Albertans that I have read on social media and online, and talked to in person is to say “good riddance” to those who were only in Alberta to maximize economic advantage. While this kind of reaction does not explicitly express a view of politics, I think it is plausible to see a view of politics underlying this sentiment that affirms a more robust conception of citizenship than the Economocentric view. According to this view politics is not just something we use to pursue our own economic advantage, but rather being a citizen of a state means being a member of common project to create the best society for all of its members. For this account of politics somebody fails to understand what it means to be a good citizen if they move away from a state merely because they were not making quite as much profit as they used to. On this view thus the Economocentric view of politics fails to grasp that a political community is not just one that exists for economic advantage, but one that tries to create the best possible common life for its members. Now the economic prosperity that individuals experience certainly contributes to the best common life, but the common life is wider than the economy and includes education, health, fine arts, athletics and the practise of self-government itself. This is why Aristotle says

It is a clear that a state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for exchange. These are conditions without which a state cannot exist; but all of them together do not constitute a state, which is a community of families, and aggregation families in well –being for the sake of a perfect and self-sufficing life. (Aristotle, 1280b-1281a, Pg.74)

Initially it should be noted that when Aristotle refers to the state, he does not mean the bureaucratic apparatus of the modern state but the polis or political community. Consequently, Aristotle’s point seems to be that what makes a political community is not the fact that it engages in economic activities under common laws, but over and above this, that it shares in and aims at the best possible common life. As a result citizenship would seem to mean doing one’s part in this common endeavour.

Therefore, we might say that those who say good riddance to business interests who would merely abandon the community at the fear of paying slightly more in tax are emphasizing the Aristotelian notion that our community is not merely one of economic interests, but one in which we share in a life together that transcends mere economic interests, and in which we each must do our part to ensure the success of the whole. This response to those who fail to recognize their obligation to do their part (those who abandon at the fear of slightly decreased profits) is one that suggests that the state would be better off with them, as they fail to understand the basic substance of what being a citizen means. These kind of citizens might create jobs, but they do so at the expense of degrading our common life by making is subordinate to their economic interests and thus we are better off without them.

No doubt anyone who has read this entry, or many of my other entries, can tell that I tend to favour the Aristotelian conception of politics over the Economocentric one, but beyond that the example that has has been discussed is an instance of the general tension between more economic and more civic understandings of politics. I say this is an instance of a general tension as whenever we see the questioning of the rampant pursuit of economic growth at the expense of well-being, health, education and existing traditions we see the conflict between the imperatives of Economocentric conceptions of society and Aristotleian ones. Furthermore, this seems to be one of the most fundamental apparent tensions within developed societies. For example, we are constantly told that good economic management requires a particular set of laws, and yet very few people seem to fully except that we must found our laws simply on the basis of economic interests.

Now, I should say the NDP have never put out a criticism of pursuing economic interests. In fact, one of the pillars of their platform is that they would better serve most Albertan’s economic interests better than other parties. Yet much of the sentiment behind the increased supported for the NDP seems to recognize the importance of economic interests while also recognizing that we should not only focus on pursuing economic growth at the expense of all else.

Works Cited
Aristotle. The Politics and the Constitution of Athens. Trans. B. Jowett. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. Print.
Karen Kleiss. “Businessmen attack NDP’s “amateur” policies.” Edmonton Journal 01 May 2015. Web. 04 May 2015 http://www.edmontonjournal.com/Businessmen+attack+amateur+policies/11022132/story.html