Senate appointments and the erosion of Canada’s representative democracy

When the Fathers of Confederation assembled to hash out a representative system, most would agree that they were quite aware of the idea of checks and balances as a senate assembly could trump the wishes of the cabinet, and by doing so, would protect the voice of the political minority in the House of Commons. Therefore in principle, those that argue for the abolishment of the senate and those who would champion a system of unicameralism, do not wish to protect the voice of the political minority as they may claim, but rather would wish to consolidate rule from the top down. For this reason, I find the NDP’s calls for senate abolishment particularly troubling. Similarly, Layton’s calls for proportional representation are an insult to representative grassroots democracy and to the wisdom and vision of the Fathers of Confederation and the system that they had envisioned.

The latest insult to the Fathers came most lately from our current Prime Minister, Paul Martin. Our Prime Ditherer’s appointed another six Liberals to current Liberal senate caucus of 47 appointed by Jean Chretien reconfirms a majority of Liberal seats in our upper chamber merely by appointment. Martin’s announcement last week allowed the appointment of two Progressive Conservative senators but this merely served as a poke in the eye to the Conservative Party of Canada as the PC Party no longer exists and instead sits opposed to the Conservatives. Paul Martin is not acting as a Prime Minister with a minority government.

The upper house cannot merely be an echo chamber of the House of Commons. In fact, in 1865 Sir John A. MacDonald advanced a similar opinion:

“There would be no use of an upper house if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the lower house. It would be of no value whatever were it a mere chamber for registering the decrees of the lower house.”

Paul Martin and Jean Chretien have essentially appointed a majority in the Senate and in his precarious position as the leader of a minority government, Martin is at least protecting his popular political minority by maintaining an appointed majority in the upper chamber.

If only it were so.

Unfortunately, John A. MacDonald would have shaken his head if he could have witnessed this current crop of Liberals who have ruled Canada with Commons majorities (and with appointed Liberal senator after Liberal senator) for the majority (and then some) of the past 100 years. The protection of the political minority, one of the fundamental advantages of the bicameral system, has been ignored by the Liberals and this irony is maintained in Paul Martin’s current slate of senators.

Most Canadians believe that the senate, as it has become, requires reform in one sense or another. Proponents of change in Alberta have even taken a grassroots democratic approach by electing their own senators. Unfortunately, Paul Martin has chosen to ignore these elected (and therefore representative) senators of the West in favour of maintaining his own party’s grip on power. Ideas such as an elected and representative senate are Conservative ideas which are well intentioned (for the mitigation of western alienation, for example). Sadly, these ideas, supported by a broad section of the political minority, and indeed by most Canadians, fail the Liberal test.

Indeed, bicameralism, as intended by the Fathers of Confederation, serves as an appropriate model to ensure checks and balances, protection of minority political opinion, and regional representation. Unfortunately, the Paul Martin and Jean Chretien Liberals have molded this vision of the Fathers of Confederation according to their own purposes at the expense of all Canadians.