The question of whether to abolish or to elect the Senate tends to flare up in the wake of a crass partisan appointment or a flagrant abuse of privilege.
That question, however, should not be allowed to negate the question of the Senate’s purpose. We have examples in our history of legislation where, in retrospect, a sober second thought could have — should have — avoided much pain, suffering, and embarrassment for the country and its citizens.
Two examples are the Gradual Enfranchisement Act which legitimized the residential school program imposed on First Nations and the War Measures Act which legitimized the forced internment of Canadian citizens of Japanese ancestry.
An effective legislative body charged with the responsibility to assess the full potential of consequences with respect to human rights and dignity that may flow from such legislation, could have prevented thousands of Canadians from being abused by state power, and the nation would have escaped the humiliation and embarrassment that followed.
It was Sir John A. Macdonald who referred to the Senate as Canada’s chamber of sober second thought, whose primary task was to curb any excesses of the elected House of Commons.
History has validated concerns that the judgment of democratically elected legislators may on occasion become clouded by populist euphoria.
To subject draft legislation to a sober second thought, or to reevaluate established legislation when the conditions prevailing at the time of an enactment no longer apply, is not to deny democracy’s principles.
It is not only wrong, it is arrogant to assume that today’s sophisticated and informed citizenry would prevent laws of the kind that facilitated residential schools and internment camps from being adopted.
Human reasoning, especially in political matters, is as likely to make wild assumptions and grotesque errors, and reach irrational conclusions today as it has been throughout history.
This is the perspective from which we need to examine the role of the Senate and its historic performance. The primary objective of that examination has nothing to do with the alternatives of abolishing the Senate or of electing its members.
The critical question is how to structure, within democratic principles, a legislative body so as to give it the necessary authority to apply a sober second thought to legislation, both existing and under consideration.
The Senate is established in our Constitution. A substantial change to or elimination of the Senate requires a constitutional amendment. It has been more than thirty years since the last time the country went through a substantial amendment of the Constitution with the adoption of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
We need a constitutional debate on the role of the Senate, not merely on whether to dump it or to fiddle with the ways and means of appointing, anointing, selecting or electing Senators.
We need a national debate on the merits of subjecting legislative initiatives to a sober second thought before enactment.
The risk is that such a debate may well expand to become a national debate on the way we should or could govern ourselves.
Such a debate may lead us to consider the separation of legislative from executive powers, and to consider electoral systems that encourage dialogue and compromise rather than empowering one political view at the expense of all others. It is only in such a context that we should consider the future of the Senate.
Democratic rights are contingent upon our democratic powers. Today our democratic powers are limited to electing members to the House of Commons.
Our electoral system transforms a plurality at the ballot box into a majority in the House of Commons.
Under our electoral system a party favoured by little more than one third of the population can gain full control of government and the legislative calendar. This condition is not conducive to democratically open, accountable, and responsive government.
Andre Carrel is a retired public sector manager living in Terrace, BC.