‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

25 May 2010

Debating the Future of the Senate of Canada

At noon to-day, the Centre for the Study of Democracy (Queen’s University) will hold a debate on Senate reform.

The principal question: ‘What, if anything, is wrong with the Senate of Canada, whether it should be reformed and, if so, by what means.’

The debaters are Senator Hugh Segal (Conservative party); Senator James S. Cowan (Liberal party); David Christopherson, MP (NDP); and Richard Nadeau, MP (Bloc Québécois); with Jane Tabor, political reporter for The Globe and Mail, as moderator.

The Centre posted a Facebook page with Senate links, discussion opportunities, and CPAC broadcast information, plus an invitation to the public-at-large to submit questions for panellists.

As visitors to my Advocacy for Appointed Upper Chambers page will attest, I am an opponent to the recently proposed reforms, whether with respect to eight-year term limits or to public consultations at the provincial level.

And, given the previously declared positions on Senate reform stated by the debaters (or most of them, anyway)—either in favour of election or simple abolition of the Red Chamber—I’m not optimistic that the current status of the Senate will receive much of a defence. May I be proved wrong.

Nevertheless, I have submitted my own queries to the CSD debate format, centring on the crux of ‘reform’:


The primary object of reform is to transform the appointed Senate into an elective body. As such, have reformers addressed and answered any of these three separate, but inter-connected, questions:
  1. Reform is best directed at known abuses or failings: Of what failing of achieving good governance—with supporting evidence of malfeasance—does the Senate of Canada stand accused?

  2. If abuses can be identified, does an elected Senate correct them, without introducing unfavourable consequences of its own (mindful, of course, of the possibility of unforeseen consequences)?

  3. The presence of two elected chambers in Parliament will inevitably clash for dominance, given that each will enjoy a mandate of ‘democratic’ legitimacy and the near co-equal status conferred on both the Senate and the House of Commons by the British North America Act, 1867 (save for the origination of ‘money bills’); what realistic proposals have been advanced to ensure harmony between the chambers, given present constitutional parameters—or to amend constitutional powers and jurisdiction to that end?

Fellow students of Edmund Burke will see his influence at work in my focus on a ‘metaphysics of reform’. Sir Robert Peel expressed this sentiment in his Tamworth Manifesto, which was a commitment to ‘a careful review of institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, undertaken in a friendly temper combining, with the firm maintenance of established rights, the correction of proved abuses and the redress of real grievances’.

Or, as Burke himself wrote: ‘A spirit of reformation is never more consistent with itself, than when it refuses to be rendered the means of destruction.’

In this spirit, I challenge those proponents of Senate reform, in good faith, to assure Canadians that their review is undertaken in a friendly temper, is respectful of the chamber’s established rights, and will not be rendered the means of destruction.

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