An Apology for the Canadian Senate
These days it seems everyone is jumping on the anti-Senate bandwagon. Disclosures of senatorial malfeasance, political opportunism, and public ignorance (owing to the fact that senatorial doings do not often make headlines), have set many of us voters to wondering why we have a Senate in the first place. The Prime Minister, Conservative Stephen Harper, and the Leader of the Opposition, New Democrat Thomas Mulcair, have both called for the abolition of our Senate. Their motivation is to gain political points by trashing a seminal Canadian institution, at a time when the institution itself, and the Canadian public, are ailing over the misdoings of a few Senators. They share in their foolhardy willingness to gamble away a political system that has served this country well for 150 years – in exchange for the possibility of winning four years, beginning with 2015. Two of our political leaders appear willing to bet the house for another chance at the pot in the middle. Laid bare, the opportunity Messrs. Mulcair and Harper pursue will fundamentally and irrevocably degrade the structure of the Canadian democratic system of government.
Every child that tries to build a stool for their stuffed-animal to sit on quickly discovers the reason for the third leg in the three-legged stool. Applied to government, this “three-legged stool” is consisting of the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Executive Branch. To remind himself of what happens to the stool when left with only two legs, I refer PM Harper to his own childhood experience. The Canadian system was designed from the ground-up to have three legs.
Few of Canada’s elected leaders have shown an inclination to persist along the path dictated by party ideology when their times were calling for pragmatism. Our current leader is different. Our Conservative leadership is behaving in a fashion which is somewhat junta-like. They act like a group that has captured government from the people in order to advance the agenda of a very small, but powerful and wealthy segment of society; rather than as a government aspiring to provide the level of dedication, service, leadership, and vision that all Canadians have, for the better part of our history, and with the notable exception of the last 10 years or so, been receiving.
The standard our current government operates under obliges it to create a version of the truth (aka propaganda), rather than to simply tell it. They mischaracterize the aspirations, wants, and needs of Canadians.
The neoconservatives seem to value expediency above all other considerations – most especially *THE*-*TRUTH*. Their efforts to shape reality into “facts” which they then broadcast to the Canadian public are comprehensive, methodical, considerable; revealing of an unwavering, albeit misguided, sense of purpose.[i] If the neocons are returned to office in 2015, they may well institutionalize their operative strategy as a federal department. In George Orwell’s 1984, you might recall the government also created a department dedicated to the management of the public data: the Ministry of Truth, or Mini-Truth, for short.
So just how might the Senate help us while we ride-out the consequences of the choice we made at the polls in 2011? Very simply, by fulfilling the purpose for which it was created. The Senate is one of many checks and balances which Canada’s visionary founders incorporated into our system of government. In order to properly execute their institution’s purpose, senators must rise above partisanship and self-interest. In order to best accomplish that, they will need to focus on their business and not be distracted with worrying about their popularity at the polls. We want our senators to approach the work of the moment with an attitude of¸ “what is the best thing, over the short and long term, for the people we serve?”, without necessarily having to consider “what is the most popular thing?” Every parent knows the two considerations oftentimes oppose one another.
It is, however, bona fide for elected politicians to consider the popularity of their actions as they go about their business. They are elected by the people, and the people expect their representatives to express their collective voice in the lower House. The Senate, aka the “upper chamber,” exists in part to afford the House of Commons, the Executive, and, by extension, the Canadian voter, the opportunity to alter legislative courses that have not been sufficiently well-thought out so as to avoid unfairness to certain groups or regions. Sir John A. Macdonald imagined the Senate he helped create to function as a “chamber of sober second thought.”
Because its members are appointed rather than elected, the Senate is able to provide a work context that is perfectly suited to the institution’s purpose, while at the same time conducive to the senators’ accomplishing a tonne of work. Because they are appointed rather than elected, senators are able to judge the efficacy of their work against a single standard – quality – without being doubly-burdened by consideration for popularity as well. Popularity is a standard which is fickle and prone to massive mood-swings – as the 2011 election bears out.
This is not to say that the House of Commons is, in and of itself, an institution prone to irresponsible behaviour. It is not; however, it is vulnerable to the antics of irresponsible politicians – those whose penchant for ideology and self-interest trumps their commitment to pursue an inclusive national vision. Now, perhaps more than ever, Canadians require an advocate influential enough to moderate the effects of that pathologically regressive mindset with which our House is afflicted, and to guard against any similar “half-steps backward” in our future. The Senate, now more than ever, is needed to look out for the Canadian people (most of whom do not own businesses or have oodles of money to invest), while PM Harper et al. busy themselves with selling their fantasy world to whomever wants to believe it.
The House of Commons is also extremely vulnerable to the voter (go figure!). Case in point: blessed with the good fortune of voter disengagement, a group of retrograde thinkers (excluding former finance minister Jim Flaherty, Senator Hugh Segal, and all like-minded and like-spirited great Canadian souls who happen to like the colour blue) were awarded a majority of seats in our House of Commons in 2011. We seemed to have lost our collective political engagement (if the election turnout was any indication) as the challenges to our making a living have amplified as the Conservative majority mandate runs its course.
A succession of governments perhaps leaning more to the right than traditional, and culminating (hopefully ending) in the 2011 result, has created a trust vacuum among the Canadian electorate. This trend seems to have begun in earnest upon the retirement of Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Our governments began to rely more and more on the thinly veiled rhetoric we might previously have associated only with American-style politics; JFK and President Obama being notable modern exceptions. During this time, it seemed only the rich were getting richer, while most of us were having to make a go of working multiple part-time-no-benefit-low-pay jobs and still having to muster the time and resources necessary to provide adequate developmental opportunities for our families. Canadians read between the lines, and began straying from the polls in droves.
PM Harper continues his government’s strategy of deepening the Canadian voter’s political and social disengagement by making it difficult, if not impossible, for people to obtain the information they need from their government, in order to make informed decisions about their government. If there are no facts, the government cannot be effectively gainsaid; if there are no institutional checks, when an institution falls out of balance, it can do much damage.
A parliament operating with a party majority that is pressing the interests of a minority of Canadians is an institution out of balance.
When the citizenry becomes disengaged, and their government does not care; or when the government becomes dysfunctional, and its citizenry does not care, then democracy is defeated.
I suppose this is another of Life’s grand ironies: that we need an unelected institutional presence in order to preserve the integrity of a democratically elected system of government.
Is any Senate reform necessary? Perhaps the method of patronage appointments by the Prime Minister at the end of their term is a candidate. Perhaps Justin Trudeau’s idea to form an independent Senate selection committee to provide a shortlist of candidates for the Prime Minister to choose from is a good idea.
Personally, I think the patronage appointment system isn’t at all that bad, for this reason: PMs will stuff the Senate as full as possible with people of “compatible” political stripes at the precise moment the House of Commons is about to do an about-face with the election of a contrary majority. By “contrary” I mean, the electorate, become tired of the status quo, simply elects the opposite. This introduces some “political latency” into the system: the Senate will preserve and sustain some of the influence of the previous government order in the upper chamber while a new order is established in the lower. This phenomenon should help to mitigate the major political mood-swings that occur from time to time in the lower house.
I do not believe an elected Senate is a good idea, nor is any proposal to modify the regional seat allocation based on population. Any reduction in the seats awarded to low population provinces and regions is also contrary to the Canadian tradition of protecting vulnerable minorities (whether they be ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, gender, or any other way you can dice a demographic).
So What to do with our Senate?
First and foremost, we must take care to avoid falling into the trap of mistaking individuals for the institutions they happen to work in. The fact we have individuals who do not see the hypocrisy of operating at lower moral standard than they espouse, or padding their incomes at the expense of the public their position exists to serve, is no more revealing of the Senate as an institution (or the preponderant character of its denizens), than teachers or preachers who abuse their children is revealing of the institutions of Education and Faith. Now, among humankind, there will always be individuals that will place their own interests, be they lewd, greedy, or authoritarian, ahead of the interests of others – the public interest – the very interests their positions exist to serve.
Trust that Prime Minister Harper wants us to paint all senators with the same dirty brush. Harper’s attitude and behaviour with regards to the Senate does not differ from that of delivery van drivers who see school zone speed-bumps as slowing them up – rather than as enhancing child-safety. I pray the Senate has slowed him down enough since 2011 so that Canadians will have the opportunity in 2015 to undo what he is doing to our country and to present and future Canadians.
Our nation’s founders have provided us with yet another check on governments and institutions that have lost, or appear to have lost, their way: the Judiciary. So long as the souls working in this venerable institution continue subscribing to the law’s intent more so than to its letter, an effective check remains in place to protect our country’s foundational structures and vulnerable citizens. I suspect the cultivation of a binary worldview and the one-dimensional mode of thinking that is required to believe in it, is responsible for the apparent Conservative attraction to the law’s letter; this leading toward patently anti-social solutions such as mandatory sentencing and mega-prisons to solve the ills of society(ills which their ideology abets); whereas those aspiring to a higher degree of mental attainment tend to focus on the law’s intent; this leading them to develop a fairer, more pragmatic system of justice. Adopting this latter approach is the only means of ensuring that the structure Canadian law provides to society remains in step with the aspirations and needs of present and future Canadians.
Trust that the Senate and Judiciary exist to provide checks upon government, in particular our government’s Executive branch (the PM, PMO, and Cabinet), and that this is the reason PM Harper does not want it around. Mr. Harper et al. share the perverse notion of Canadian society as existing primarily to support the goals of business when it is, in fact, the other way round:
Business is an attribute of society and exists by nature in subordination to it; society cannot exist in subordination to business.
The Senate and Judiciary of their nature view society as a collection of individuals, groups, and institutions – of which business forms a part.
Allowing the business paradigm to usurp the Canadian social model amounts to an inversion of a self-evident principle: nothing is master over that in which it forms a part. So far as I am aware, no philosopher has ever promoted the notion of reverse-synergism; wherein the part becomes greater than the whole by virtue of its separation from all of the other parts- but Mr. Harper and like-minded individuals persist in extolling the same illusion. Societies, in whatever form, whether they be families, communities, or nations, are strengthened to the extent their internal functions are collaborative and mutually supportive; weakened to the extent they are competitive and zero-sum.
Business is a means to society’s end; not the end in itself.
If PM Harper were a philosopher, he might have said:
The end justifies the means, and [let me be clear] the end is business.
This value inversion is the reason for the burgeoning income inequality we are experiencing, along with the corollary social and apparent institutional dysfunction. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), instantiated by his Progressive Conservative predecessor, Brian Mulroney, and the pending Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU (CETA), which PM Harper is so desperately trying to conclude before Canadians catapult him and his cronies out of office, could handcuff the ability of governments(local, municipal, provincial, federal) to legislate on the public’s behalf.
Policies crafted by municipal, provincial, and federal governments could be deemed illegal by a tribunal existing and operating under the terms of a free trade agreement. National, provincial, and municipal governments will be obliged to defer to these trade tribunals and repeal legislation they created in response to the needs of their citizens and businesses.[ii]
The raison d’être of the Senate is to uphold Canadian values and to preserve the wonderful demographic and geographic diversity that is Canada’s gift to the world; whereas a tribunal passing judgement on trade disputes can only be concerned with the legitimate (as per the terms of the free trade agreement) flow of money, goods, and services. Tribunals absolutely cannot be given sway over our politicians’ ability to legislate and to serve their communities and constituents.
Harper’s motivation to get rid of the Senate derives from the same forces of Nature that disincline businesses toward the creation of Joint Health and Safety Committees, Worker Wellness Committees, or other initiatives (workplace unions, say); things which constrain the actions of employers. It is only by rule of law that a “social conscience” is imparted to, and acquired by, business.
Businesses are created solely to generate profit. They are not created so other Canadians will have the opportunity to earn a living or to play hockey; but so that owners and investors can make money. Businesses are not created to support charities (although it is nice when they do), nor are they created to provide support for family, community, or society. All of these considerations are secondary to profit-making. If for any extended period of time, it costs more for the business to operate than the business is earning for its owners/shareholders, the job benefits it provides to the community, the monies it donates, will be the first to go in an effort to keep the business afloat. The last acts of a dying business are dedicated to its investors. It will not, say, fairly take care of the community it had operated in, or the employees who no longer have income but still have to support themselves – or even make adequate reparations, as the people of Lac Megantic know full well – without being made to.
No business has ever been created for any other reason than the expectation of profit.
The regard business entertains for worker health and safety, remuneration, and working conditions had to be imposed by legislation and the actions of trade unions. Where and how a business rids itself of waste – not to mention employees they suddenly come to regard as extra baggage – had to be imposed upon them by legislation. Do you know of a single business that, without the threat of closure (and the elimination of opportunities for profit), would voluntarily choose to spend upwards of $30M on a regimen of secondary treatment for the sakes of river and lake biota? Do you know of a single CEO whose job would not be made more secure, or whose bonus would not be improved if this money went instead to their shareholders?
The implementation of checks and balances on government action, without usurping the government’s ability to act, has informed the structure of western constitutions from the very beginning. Checks and balances had to be incorporated into national constitutions precisely because those people tasked and blessed with nation-building (in our case, the likes of Sir John A. and Sir George Brown) knew the attacks on their work were certain to continue, so long as there are people who stand to profit from undermining it.
These great Canadian souls knew their opponents. They also knew the moment democracy is taken for granted, it is weakened, and could well become lost. Recall that the constitutions of the Americans and French were constructed by people working amid the breakdown of their nation’s social order. Recognizing the existence of a tolerance-threshold for social and economic imbalance in societies, they were obliged to find a way of ensuring the imbalances of the past, and the corollary bloodshed, would not be the inheritance of the future.
They found the way, and that way was not a law but a process. They knew, being the avid students of history which they were, that any society found lacking in its system of checks and balances does not remain viable for long; that societies are generally able to thrive only to the extent, and for as long as, a viable system of checks and balances remains an active part of the social framework. So they divided power among the structural elements of society – the people (the House of Commons), the government (the Executive Branch – PM and Cabinet), and the Senate. They did this precisely so that each branch might function in part to keep the others honest; so that no single branch may acquire the power to neutralize the influence of the others, or act despite the others; above all else, to prevent the concentration of power and its destabilizing effects upon society. The concentration of power is no different than the concentration of wealth if its deleterious impacts upon society are the measure. Another self-evident principle: wealth and power function best when distributed; this is true not only of societies but of business also.
Imagine if, in your family, only dad decided things. But your dad only knows about football, baseball, and hockey. Imagine dad having to decide on your style of clothes, hair, extracurriculars, or whether you need to subscribe to any channels other than TSN or Sports Net. Thank God moms are part of the family structure too, eh?
In a healthy family setting you are heard, and an explanation provided to you, one way or the other, so that you know the reason you did or did not get your way. Citizens in a democratic society should not take it for granted that their needs will be duly considered or that their voices are being listened to. Society, any society, is only viable and secure to the extent its citizens are socially and politically engaged; it is the citizen who ultimately ensures that the channels of communication with governments and government agencies remain open. Our voices will not be heard if there is no compelling reason for the listener – in this case, our government – to listen; any more than businesses will change their modus operandi if no causality exists between the prospective change and their ability to make profit.
All of this requires legislation that incorporate and sustain the operation of checks and balances into the governing and social structure; and an electorate that is both politically and socially engaged.
The Canadian Spirit compels us to do the right thing, regardless of personal cost. If you are a nation-builder like Sir John A., a part of doing the right thing is to instantiate systemic impediments to doing the wrong thing. Our founders knew how to accomplish this for the nation they were blessed with building (as intervening, current, and future generations of Canadians are equally blessed with the results of their efforts). They chose to instantiate a bicameral system of government; incorporating an elected House of Commons and a non-elected Senate.
They chose not to import the American experiment of an elected Senate.
Whereas an elected House of its nature provides voice to the majority, an unelected Senate provides of its nature a vehicle for the expression and relief of regional disparities (acknowledged, anticipated, and emergent), and for the protection of groups and individuals whose low numbers render them vulnerable. If each “leg” of government is dedicated to working as collaboratively and true to its overarching purpose as the legs of our stool appear to be, then Canadian society will be stable and remain upright.
This every child knows.
Links to Further Reading:
1- Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew. You can read this definitive text’s introduction here: http://sen.parl.gc.ca/sjoyal/Joyal’s%20book%20docs/Introduction%20(Eng).htm -or get the book through your local library, or purchase it from Amazon. This is an outstanding contribution to Canadian politics, edited by an outstanding Canadian, Senator Serge Joyal
2-The Senate of Canada Website: http://sen.parl.gc.ca/portal/home-e.htm
3- The Victory Lab, by Sasha Issenberg. Available from your local library or http://www.amazon.ca
4- The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain and Its Politics, by George Lakoff. Available from your local library or http://www.amazon.ca
5- Sir John A. Macdonald: His Life, Our Times by Richard J. Gwyn. Available from your local library or http://www.amazon.ca
[i] Recall, among many other Conservative misdoings, what PM Harper did to the Long Form Census.
[ii] Read The Crash of 2016: The Plot to Destroy America – and What We Can Do to Stop It by Thom Hartmann, for many examples of this.