03 March 2013

How to Destroy the Senate

“For the Senate must change.  And we intend to make change happen.”
         – Stephen Harper, address to Senate, 7 September 2006

The Senate has long posed a problem for Government and for Canadians.  Here we have an unelected body, with long terms, and pensions after, that appears to serve no real purpose other than to rubber stamp legislation.  What use is it?

In many situations – particularly when there is minority government – the Senate doesn’t readily appear to do anything.  (During minority governments, bills have generally been debated and amended extensively before reaching the Senate and are usually well-thought-out or at least consensus-building.)  The point of the Senate is to be “the chamber of sober second thought” – its purpose is to review legislation while taking the long-view, looking past the next election, seeing the impact of these changes on Canada over the next 10, 20, 50 years.  It needs to be appointed so that Senators will not be distracted by running for election, or indeed, party politics, but can stay focused on their role as protectors of the future.  That role becomes even more crucial when there is majority government. 

Majority government can legally do whatever it wants.  Opposition cannot block legislation or enforce changes.  Nor can they bring about the fall of government except, perhaps, in the most extreme circumstances and/or if they somehow manage to get government MPs on their side.  Otherwise, the Government can pass any law it wishes. 

Who protects the people in such circumstances?  Should a majority government pass a law which the whole of the public hates, who stands up for the people?

The Senate.

The Senate has the ability to refuse to ratify any legislation, to keep sending it back to the Commons for debate, effectively stalling the bill until it dies.  The Senate can do the same with the budget – keep sending it back for debate.  If that is done repeatedly, if the Government cannot get its budget passed, that triggers a confidence crisis and an election.  In other words, the Senate serves as the safeguard of democracy and the protector of the public.

Which is why Stephen Harper hates it.

For years, Harper lobbied for Senate Reform, for limitations on its power, for changes to how Senators get their seats, even for abolition of the Senate.  He was vocal, pointed, and attacked the Senate at every opportunity.  Especially when he led a minority Government and had problems getting legislation through the Senate; or, worse, when the Opposition got its own bills passed.  He famously attacked the Senate for being an unelected body interfering with the elected government.  He painted them as undemocratic.

Then he got a majority government.  Many people thought that would be the end of the Senate.  Except Harper faces one problem: the Commons cannot abolish the Senate.  In fact, the Commons cannot do much other than bad-mouth them to the media.  Because the Senate represents half of our system of government and we cannot have one part abolishing the other.  It’s illegal.  Which is why Senate reform suddenly disappeared from Harper’s agenda.

What confuses many is why Harper, who hates the Senate so much, should be appointing so many Senators.  Why is he defending the ones who are misusing public funds?  Why should he care at all?

Simple:  Harper wants the Senate gone.  He can’t get rid of it himself.  So he has to make the public demand its dissolution.

How would you do that?  If you wanted to eliminate the final opposition to total control of Canada, and you needed the public to do it, how would you bring it about?

First, you might appoint devoted followers and yes-people to the Senate so that, no matter what, your bills would be rubber stamped.  This would be a good way of showing how ineffective the Senate is: effectively removing the Senates ability to be independent.

And you might not care about the quality of your appointees.  In fact, it might be more useful if you appointed unqualified people, people with issues, people who would abuse the system, who might cause public scandal, or simply say asinine things.  After all, nothing turns the citizens quicker than an endless string of headlines about Senators misbehaving or being stupid.

Then you might want to leak some information to the press about how expensive the Senate is, about how some Senators are claiming expenses for things they don’t need, about how the rules permit this.  Trust the media to do all the digging and pull up the facts you know are there – after all, you appointed people to behave that way.

You might leak info on Senators who are fighting Alzheimer’s disease, or cancer, or addiction – enough for the scandal-press to start questioning the competence of these individuals.  Enough to show that Senators cannot be removed by the public, even if they are incapable of doing their jobs. 

Then you might publicly defend the Senate, or particular Senators.  You give sound bites about how they are following the rules, how it is the rules that might be the issue, how it is the un-elected process of appointment that keeps the Senate unaccountable.  After all, you don’t want to appear like you are against Canada’s system of government.  You want the public to reach its own conclusion, despite your leading them by the nose.

So you keep up that charade: appearing to support the system while, at the same time, working in the background to shred it.  You appoint more and more Senators, until the upper chamber is bloated beyond belief.  You slip more dirty information to the media.  Perhaps you even have some of your Senators fall on their swords, abuse residency status or expenses, knowing that they will be rewarded later with board appointments to multi-million-dollar corporations or, at least, with a nice Senate retirement package.  You keep up the front while tearing out the back and increasing public outrage.

Until, eventually, the public cannot remember what the Senate was for, and can only recall headline after headline about Senators behaving badly.  When the public is ready and demanding action, only then will you have YOUR senators, the ones YOU control, stand up in their seats and move that the Senate be abolished.  Your Senators will vote the entire body out of existence, at the demand of the people.  While you, apparently, had nothing to do with it. 

That will remove the one thing that stands in your way.  The one body which had the ability to bring you to heel.  With a majority government and no Senate, you can now rule Canada with an iron fist and the citizens cannot object, interfere, or stop you.  You will be the democratically elected tyrant.

Stephen Harper may be many things.  But he’s not stupid.

“But the only way you end up with more comprehensive reform is if you destabilize the status quo to the point where Canadians say, ‘This is a mess, and we’ve got to sort this out.’ ” - Roger Gibbins, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, MacLeans, 7 October 2011

More academic discussion of Senate reform can be found here.

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