Senate reform: reprise
Given new Senator Runciman's comments of today, which seem to indicate a certain ambivalence about the value of an independent Senate, I am reprising this blog post of a few weeks ago (**And relatedly, update-ishly, I should also hail this useful, well-researched post from Kady O'Malley.) Pasted in full, below, is what I had to say on the business of Senate reform earlier this month:
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is making clear that he wants a new Senate and he will be appointing five new senators soon as part of his bid to get one. But let's be clear -- the new Senate he wants bears no resemblance to the old dream of Reform Party idealists. To wit:
1. I keep hearing Conservatives say that they need a majority in the Senate so that they can carry through their legislative agenda from the House of Commons. Excuse me? You need to appoint a majority in one place because you can't get a majority in the elected legislature? If Liberals did this during their minority rule (when Paul Martin appointed non-Liberals to the chamber), we would (appropriately) have seen a revolution in the West; triple Es carved into every field past the Ontario border.
So, one question no one's answered for me yet: Why should you have a majority in the Senate if you can't get one in the Commons?
2. The larger point, though, is that the Senate isn't supposed to be a mirror of the House of Commons. It's supposed to be a check on the tyranny of blunt representation by population. (So that we weren't passing bills only that suit Quebec and Ontario, with their huge, Central Canadian domination of the Commons.)
When Harper and others were calling for Senate reform in the 1980s and 1990s, they were asking for a chamber that would be different from the House of Commons; one that would challenge legislation passed by the majority. It's supposed to be a check on the Commons, not a rubber stamp. Again, imagine the outrage from smaller provinces if the Liberals, while they were in office, argued that they had to fix the Senate so that it blindly adhered to their strength, based mainly in Toronto and Montreal.
That leads to the next question: if Harper's new idea of Senate reform is just to have a chamber that does what the Commons orders it to do, then why have a Senate at all? Abolition is a much cheaper option, in the long term.