Significant change is needed to make Senate function as intended

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In a more co-operative Parliament Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau's vote, on an NDP motion last October that called for the release of Liberal and Conservative senators from their party affiliations, would have been in favour instead of against it.

Later, in a display of political one-upmanship he adopted the idea as his own. Trudeau commented in support of his new-found "idea": "If the Senate serves a purpose at all, it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government."

A cynic might suggest this comment was an attack on the current Prime Minister Stephen Harper with a caveat that it could be equally applied to former prime minister Jean Chretien and his infamous "stranglehold" on government. A realist would point out that the Senate's real purpose is a regional check on an all-powerful central government – the kind of government Trudeau's father, Pierre, championed.

While Trudeau’s comment above sheds no light on a possible divergence of views between himself and his father on a preference for strong central government, other comments on the Senate suggest there may be no divergence. Trudeau is on record as opposing the election of senators due to its potential to result in gridlock. An elected Senate, feeling its oats, may take exception to a law favoured by government in the House of Commons and in a revelation of sober second thought reject that law.

Many commentators point to the United States for examples of this paralysis with an elected Senate. All of them fail to point out that this paralysis in not an ongoing historical phenomenon but a byproduct of what one should expect with debates as fundamental as the real world interpretation of the Second Amendment of their Constitution (a Constitution that all who hold office must swear to defend) and their deep spiral into debtor nation status – a paralysis that is eminently preferable to the potential civil strife a lack of careful consideration might bring.

Trudeau said if he were elected prime minister he would go further and appoint only independent senators. But independent in this case only means independent of party affiliation not independent to thwart government legislation. Senators would have no real independence without the democratic legitimacy conferred through being elected. An appointed senate of independents would have no more power or influence than one composed of party representatives.

Against this backdrop the Chronicle Herald ran a front page editorial – supported by The News and other Atlantic papers in the TC media chain – calling for Atlantic Canadian senators to act as a group to represent the interests of the region. The idea is to use the numerical advantage of a combined 30 senators in the 105 member Senate to advance the interests of the Atlantic provinces. The Herald likened this to a potential political "Senate Spring" that opened possibilities even Trudeau might not have imagined. While he might not have imagined every possibility surrounding this "Senate Spring" he did imagine the most important – elected senators – before he rejected it.

Independent votes would be an important component of an effectively reconstituted senate but in the absence of the legitimacy conferred by a popular vote little would change. Being able to amend, postpone and veto legislation, the Senate was constitutionally granted the power it needs to make it effective, but due to its appointed nature, the Senate has refrained from exercising its full powers. Putting the cart in front of horse may seem like a rational approach when constitutional change would be needed to make some of the more meaningful changes required but it draws attention away from the requirement of significant change: change that would make the Senate function as intended.

The oath of public office to uphold the Constitution in the United States stands in stark contrast to the Canadian experience where our constitutionally mandated, regionally representative, Senate requirement is totally ignored. Rather than politely pleading with senators to do the job they are supposed to be doing in the first place, righteous moral indignation is more appropriate.

If the Herald is serious about Senate reform they should be advocating for the election of senators.


Al Muir is a local businessman and resident of Plymouth who keeps a close eye on the political front, both local and nationally. He can be reached at

Organizations: Parliament Liberal Party, NDP, House of Commons The Herald

Geographic location: United States, Plymouth

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