The time has come, for someone, anyone, to cut through the gobbledygook in the current discussion about the Canadian Senate. To quickly summarize the tedious criticisms, it is oft argued the Senate is unaccountable, irrelevant and partisan.
Similar to Captain Renault’s finding gambling at Rick’s Café in Casablanca, the critics have discovered there is politics in Parliament! The authors of one recent op-ed in the Citizen state: “today (the Senate is filled) with political hacks, failed Conservative candidates, and shameless patronage appointments.”
These kinds of statements cry out for empirical research and analysis.
A review of the Senate database reveals that since Confederation, 932 Canadians have been appointed to the Senate. Excluding the 73 appointed at the very beginning of Confederation by agreement, 22 prime ministers from Sir John A Macdonald to Stephen Harper have appointed 859 Senators.
The database reveals nine Liberal prime ministers appointed 444 Liberals of their 470 appointments to the Senate while 334 Conservatives have been appointed out of 389 appointments to the Senate by 13 Conservative prime ministers.
The all-time Senate partisan appointment champion is Mackenzie King with 102 Liberal senators of a total of 103 Senate appointments.
The silver medal for Senate partisan appointments goes to Sir Wilfrid Laurier who appointed 80 of 81. Note that Macdonald appointed 91 to the Senate — but only 53 were Conservatives.
The bronze medal goes to Pierre Trudeau who appointed 70 Liberals of his 81 appointments. However, in the spirit of fairness, the bronze should be shared with Jean Chrétien who appointed 72 Liberals of 75 appointed to the Senate — more Liberals appointed but less in total than Trudeau.
Are these appointments of experienced politicians as terrible as some partisans and pundits allege?
The Founding Fathers of the U.S. Constitution had concerns with factionalism in democracy, as did Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, nearly 50 years after the founding of the United States and 30 years before Canadian Confederation. There was a clear recognition that democracy can be seduced by populists and can descend into demagoguery.
And we have good evidence from Quebec’s Maurice Duplessis to Louisiana’s Huey Long to U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy from both the left and the right.
While the American founders were committed to democracy, they understood — as did their English ancestors in the long evolution of English constitutional democracy — that the potential “demos” in democracy required checks and balances.
To explicitly address the possibility of a faction taking complete control, the American founders created the separation of powers of executive, legislative and judicial branches. However, they went further in ensuring while members of the House of Representatives were elected very two years, each U.S. Senator was appointed once every six years (by the state government which the Senator represented) to act as a check on the potential abuses of a minority by the more politically excitable House.
The fathers of Confederation — meeting in the midst of the U.S. Civil War — wanted to ensure that Canada did not repeat the American experience. Thus, they ensured Senators would be appointed by the national government — unlike the U.S. system — to avoid the power struggle between the national and state level governments that many believed led to the Civil War.
Reflecting our British constitutional heritage, the British North America Act stated that to be a senator one had to be a British citizen, at least 30 years of age (at a time when life expectancy was far shorter than today) and a property owner in the province from which the senator was appointed. Counterbalancing these values, the Senate was prohibited from introducing money bills.
However, judging by contemporary criticism of the Senate, it is not well understood that the role of the Senate was to slow down the House of Commons on those uncommon occasions when the House acted in a rash and precipitous manner. Sir John A. Macdonald characterized it most succinctly when he stated the role of Senate was “controlling and regulating but not initiating.” Recently, we experienced another example when the Senate slowed down a gambling bill passed unanimously and rashly in one day in the House.
However, an additional compelling reason in support of an unreformed Senate has emerged in modernity.
During the last 50 years, the Senate has produced some highly regarded committee reports, including Senator David Croll’s landmark report on aging and Senator Michael Kirby’s widely admired report on mental health. More recently, Senate committees have produced excellent reports on pipelines and the economy. These reports are models of policy clarity that have pushed the boundaries of our understanding.
Were we to abolish or reform the Senate to ensure elections, we would lose the contributions of these seasoned politicians in this institutional setting. Yet, at the same time, patronage would not be abolished for it would reappear elsewhere.
Indeed, according to the U.S. Foreign Service Officers Association, 25 per cent of all U.S. ambassadors are non-professional, having served previously as party bagmen or in similar partisan roles.
Do Canadians want large numbers of former Liberal or Conservative politicians to infiltrate our foreign service as ambassadors?
The Senate is doing what it was supposed to do from the beginning in slowing down the Commons when necessary and has expanded the import of its deliberations through excellent committee research concerning important policy issues further legitimating its existence.
Instead of condemning King, Laurier, Trudeau, Chrétien, and other prime ministers for their Senate appointments, let us praise them for retaining the collective wisdom of some of our most experienced politicians in the house of sober second thought.
This column was first published in the Ottawa Citizen.
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