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The recent scandals involving senators offer more reasons to question the Senate’s continued existence. Senators currently control investigations into other senators’ ethics, spending, attendance and actions overall, and enforcement of the rules, and the rules are very weak and/or there are no penalties for violations in most cases. This is a completely ineffective system undermined by rampant conflicts of interest — and senators are not even talking about changing it.
While there are many proposals to reform the Senate, they all leave or create more problems than they solve, and all require changes to the Constitution (as Prime Minister Harper will soon learn when the Supreme Court of Canada rules on his reference case) — so abolishing the Senate is no more difficult than any other option.
An elected Senate will result in gridlock with the House, as happens in the U.S., because both bodies will have the democratic legitimacy to reject each other’s proposals. And term limits for senators will not solve any of the Senate’s many other accountability problems.
The Senate supposedly exists to provide a “sober second thought” review of House bills, but many senators are on the boards of big businesses and so are essentially inside-government lobbyists — again a system undermined by rampant conflicts of interest.
As well, the Senate has never developed a new proposal that was not already being advocated by some think-tank or advocacy organization — so it is not needed to generate new policy ideas in any area.
Finally, the Senate is supposed to balance the representation of Canada’s regions in the federal Parliament. This goal could easily be achieved by increasing the number of seats from some regions in the House of Commons. This would go against the democratic principle of representation by population, but so does an elected Senate, and in any case in a federation like Canada that principle is always ignored somewhat in order to fulfill the goal of ensuring all regions are well-represented.
For all these reasons, the most simple, least costly, and therefore best solution is to abolish the Senate and incorporate more regional representation into the House of Commons.
If Prime Minister Harper had initiated a broad consultation seven years ago to make these changes, instead of playing games by introducing so-called Senate reform bills again and again but doing nothing to move them through Parliament, we would be much closer to the goal of having an equal, elected and effective Parliament (which has always been the goal of Senate reform).
Tyler Sommers is the Coordinator of Democracy Watch.
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