The selective myopia of Senate punditry

Since the Senate spending scandal broke out, there has been no shortage of opinions that something must be done about the Upper Chamber. Weak sauce news pieces quote polls that cite “support for reform or abolition,” as though they were interchangeable, or that there was but a single model for reform. People advocating for reform do so without the benefit of actually thinking about the end product that they’re trying to achieve, focusing instead on the inputs – generally in terms of elections and term limits – without looking at the consequences of how those changes will play out, as though elections won’t be a recipe for increased partisanship and gridlock. Abolitionists, meanwhile, throw out facile arguments, be it around cost, or “accountability,” and hope to stoke enough outrage in the population to get their way.

What gets me throughout all of this sturm und drang is the myopia with which the arguments around the Senate are all presented in. The NDP and a handful of premiers have noted that the provinces abolished their own upper chambers with no ill effect – as though provinces were federations, for whom a bicameral legislature makes much more sense. Brad Wall mistakenly seems to think that the Senate’s only job is to offer a provincial perspective to federal legislation, and that the Council of the Federation does that job as well if not better. And over the weekend, the National Post ran a lengthy article that looked at Upper Chambers, both in existence and abolished, as though they were some kind of guard against the “temporary dictatorships” of majority governments. Even more bizarrely, Maclean’s Aaron Wherry took exception and pointed to the number of countries at the top of the UN human development index are unicameral – though Canada is not Sweden, Norway, Denmark or Iceland, which are all small countries with homogeneous populations.

What this kind of selective myopia and rush to compare our Upper Chamber to others is that it completely ignores the unique construction of the Canadian Senate, nor the multitude of roles that it plays within the totality of the Canadian parliament. Ultimately, these numerous blind spots suck the life out of any kind of robust debate that might be had about the chamber.

Unlike any other Upper Chamber in the world, the Canadian Senate operates on a principle of double federalism – cultural and territorial. Analogous chambers in places like the United States, Australia or Germany may be federal, but don’t have the linguistic or cultural minority concerns of Canada’s federal construction, and while Australia and the United States’ senates operate on the lines of territorial federalism, the German Bundesrat operates along the lines of administrative federalism. The Canadian Senate cannot be compared with the House of Lords either because of its differences in composition (territorial, upper limit on membership), or its manner of selection. While the Canadian Senate is in theory a legislative body like its counterparts in America and Australia, it operates in practice as more of a deliberative and investigative body rather than one that competes with the Commons. All of these factors combined make the kinds of comparisons between the Canadian Senate and the Upper chambers of other countries or sub-national governments to be a futile exercise.

The notion that the Senate is a stopgap against a “temporary dictatorship” is a fairly specious argument, but it cannot be denied that the Senate’s role of “sober second thought” is integral to its role. The sobriety, however, stems from its appointed nature, free from the populist excesses of the elected House that sometimes get the better of its judgement. That appointed nature allows it to speak “truth to power” to the elected officials without fear of retribution. The protection of minorities – a hallmark of liberal democracies – was built into the structure of the Senate rather than provincial interests. Sorry, Brad Wall. Those minorities in 1867 were largely linguistic and religious – Anglophones and Anglicans in Quebec, Francophones and Catholics in Ontario, Acadians in New Brunswick, the minority population status of the Maritime provinces in the face of sheer size of Ontario’s representation. These were all considerations that resonate to this day, as there remain more women and visible minorities in the Senate’s ranks than there are in the elected Commons.

The Senate’s appointed nature also allows for a greater diversity of backgrounds of its membership, as it can gather the voices of those who would never seek elected office otherwise, despite a history of accomplishment. This diversity of experience also lends to its role as a built-in “think tank” for government, where high-level policy can be explored and debated in an ongoing capacity with a permanent infrastructure in place to keep it cost-effective. When one considers that Senate reports are of consistently high quality, oftentimes higher than the reports of royal commissions without the costs associated with said commissions, and done in a cross-partisan manner, it produces results that the Commons is not able to, nor would be feasible coming from private sector think-tanks, the majority of whom are partisan by nature. As well, that same appointed nature and lengthy terms give Senators the ability to not only retain the institutional memory of Parliament, where there is a high turnover rate in the Commons, but it also allows it the luxury of long-term perspective, rather than one that is focused solely on the next electoral cycle. It also allows for greater continuity in joint committee work, such as the scrutiny of regulations, one of those technical and tedious areas where the Senate tends to do the “adult work” of Parliamentary oversight. These are yet more functions that cannot be replicated in the Commons.

There are a number of other flawed arguments for abolition, such as the red herring of cost. Those figures never take into account the fact that flawed legislation that would otherwise be caught and amended in the Senate would be challenged in the Courts at much greater expense, and on an ongoing basis – and never mind extending the logic of how appointed Senators are bad, while appointed judges are good.

Take all of these factors, which just scratch the surface of the many and varied roles of the Senate, and of its unique construction among the Upper Chambers of the world, and it quickly becomes clear that the kinds of punditry that we have been exposed to thus far has been pretty weak. Either out of ignorance or malice, nobody wants to look at the Senate in its full context when they give their opinions or even comparisons. But if we are going to have this debate, which some people seem keen to given the misbehaviour of a small number of Senators, then we need to have a debate that is informed about the Senate in its totality. To date, we haven’t had that, and the damage to our civic literacy as a result is incalculable.

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