I think one of the primary political problems facing our country is fairly straightforward, albeit difficult to solve. It can be expressed this way: we live in a society in which compromise and coalition building is becoming ever more necessary but our political institutions continue to exist in the traditional paradigm of excessive centralization of power which not only doesn’t foster compromise but actually exerts pressure in the other direction. The problems of our society are increasingly complex and require greater input from more people and a greater willingness on the part of our politicians to listen carefully to a multitude of opinions and act with greater concern for the various forces and elements of society. However, the traditional power-centered system of our politics is fostering individuals who have very little interest in compromise and simply crave power.
Given this problem, the first question we need to ask concerning any potential political reform is; to what degree will this change promote the kinds of positive changes which will promote a new politics and undermine the old politics?
It follows therefore that this is the question we need to ask with regard to any potential Senate reform in Canada. I am not particularly in favor of Senate reform at the present time because there is no clear vision of significant reforms that will promote a new compromise politics. On the other hand, I also don’t support the NDP policy of simply eliminating the Senate because such a move will just further the concentration of power in the PMO which is the most pressingl example of the problem with the present political paradigm.
The Conservative party has made a lot of noise about reforming the Senate but since we know, a priori, that they have no interest in creating a new compromise oriented political paradigm, we also know that their reforms would not score high on the above question to which we must subject our potential reforms.
Most models of an elected Senate would do little to change the prevailing political circumstances in the country. Let’s say that we have an equal Senate along the lines of the US Senate. Since we would have to have fewer Senators than MPs (because an upper house of 300 plus Senators would simply be too unwieldy), we could guess that we might have, let’s say, ten Senators from each Province and Territory. That would give us 130 Senators. However, since the electoral boundaries would have to be, in most cases, smaller than those for MPs, third parties would be even less represented than they are in the House of Commons and the vast majority of Senators would be Liberals and Conservatives. If votes in this Senate were whipped, party votes then the situation would be largely the same as it is now. The only cases in which it would be different would be when the majority party in the Senate was different than that in the House. This could happen, and if the elections were staggered it could happen on a regular basis. This is the only case in which this type of Senate might promote more compromise because it would generate a situation in which governments would be faced with getting little or nothing done unless they learned to compromise. But there would certainly be nothing built into this institutional structure that would guarantee that this would happen.
We desperately need political reforms in this country; reforms that decentralize power and promote more varied inputs and greater representation. We should absolutely resist any reforms to the Senate which fail to create institutions which embrace and represent these reforms. So far the reforms that have been talked about would simply further entrench powers in negative ways. And I don’t think eliminating the Senate does us any favors either since at the very minimum it does occasionally undermine the arbitrary power of the executive and it creates a group of representatives who are not subject to the continuous whims of electoral politics. As things stand now Ontario and Quebec are resisting any Conservative reforms to the Senate largely because they stand to lose power in a Senate which has equal representation from all the provinces and territories. And attempt to push through reforms without the consent of the provinces risks a serious constitutional crisis. This is the simple fact that the Conservatives overlooked when they campaigned on reforming the Senate. It was foolhardy of Harper to say he would not appoint Senators and going to reform the Senate when any such reforms would require all provinces consent. It was the same foolhardy and politically meaningless promise that the Mayor of Ottawa made when he said he would ensure a zero tax increase when he knew that such a move would require the majority of the city councilors. But Mayor O’Brian is much like Stephen Harper; they both exist in the traditional paradigm of power centered politics and have a pathological need to wield absolute power.
Any significant reforms to the Senate should include an entire package of reforms that lessons the power of the executive branch of government and which extends the ideal principles of democracy. The Conservative have absolutely no interested in the extension of democratic principles so nothing they say about Senate reform should be of interest to true democrats. I am still waiting for a party to have some actual vision on this issue.