Jul 072011

When the king of Rome established his Senate 2,700 years ago it was a triple E Senate…Elected, Effective and Equal, the very style of a Senate many would like to see here in Canada.  The first Senators of Rome may have been appointed by King Romulus but subsequent Senators were elected by the tribal Curia,   100 Senators from each of the three founding tribes of Rome so it was equal in makeup based on region, and of course it was to gradually become effective, to such an extent that it elected, as a body, the new King once the previous King died.

Over time the Roman Senate went from a triple E senate to an unelected, unequal, and ineffective institution.  It became a body of appointed nobles, some of whom passed on the membership in the Senate to their offspring, who had little power under the Divine Emperors and no longer were elected by the people based on region.  In many respects Canada’s present day Senate more closely resembles the Senate of Rome just before its fall.  However, we can learn from history and benefit from the mistakes of the Romans.

1) Elected.  Although constitutionally Senators must be appointed by the Prime Minister the Upper Chamber will become more of an elected body as individual provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan hold elections for their Senators.  A Prime Minister who refuses to appoint based on the provinces list of elected Senators risks unpopularity and accusations of favoritism.

2) Effective. The effectiveness of the Senate is constrained for a number of reasons, constitutionally of course it cannot propose money or appropriation Bills, but more importantly the Senate respects the fact that since the members are not elected they should not overturn any legislation brought to the Chamber from the elected Lower House.  Once elected this impediment to effectiveness will be removed and Senators will have as much electoral authority as members of the House of Commons.

2) Equal.  Currently our 105 Senators are chosen to represent the regions of the country.  The West, Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes each have 24 Senators, Newfoundland and Labrador has 6 and the Territories each have one.  While this is obviously not perfectly equal, it is an attempt to fill the red chamber with a relatively equal number of Senators from the broader regions of the country.  An ideal makeup would obviously be an exact number of Senators representing each province rather than a greater region.  Representation by province would fit with an elected Senate as provinces, not regions, hold elections.  Also, Canada is a confederation of provinces, not regions and as such each province should be equally represented in the Senate exactly as is done in the United States.

Recently there have been calls, usually from the NDP and other socialists, to abolish the Senate.  This is because the House of Commons is a battle ground of competing ideologies.  Just the kind of place socialists could take control of.  Currently the primary incentive to follow party whips is the benefit derived from running in subsequent elections under a party banner with the resources only a party machine can offer.  This loyalty to party is diminished if the opportunity for re-election is removed.  To this end Senators could sit for longer terms, perhaps 10 years, and be restricted to serving only one term.

My colleague Bob Metz has come up with a tongue-in-cheek yet novel suggestion.  Why don’t we reform the Senate and abolish the House of Commons?  I think suggestion has some merit.

Before Confederation, as it is today, each of the Provinces, Colonies and the Dominion of Newfoundland had their own elected Parliaments, most even having an Upper Chamber called a Legislative Council.  In these houses laws are made reflecting most of what is also debated in our House of Commons.  Why should the Federal House of Commons be discussing, education, health care or even energy issues when these matters are constitutionally a provincial jurisdiction?  Why should the federal Lower House be entering into treaties with other nations when such decisions should be made in an Upper House which is more accurately representative of the confederated Colonies, Provinces and the Dominion of Newfoundland?

Most (or it could probably argued all) of the decision making that goes on in the House of Commons could either more appropriately be discussed in the individual Houses of each Province, or in an elected federal Senate.  When involving matters not of a national matter the debate could be decided in each province.  If the matter involves the nation as a whole, then the Senate would be the more appropriate chamber for discussion since the nation is more properly defined as a confederation of 10 provinces rather than a great amorphous mob of 35 million people.

(Originally broadcast on Just Right #207, July 7, 2011.)