It has been said that the only inevitable things in this country were death and income tax. Proposed abolition or reform of the senate should be added to that list.
Since the passage of the British North America Act and Constitutional Act by the British parliament in 1867, when Canada ceased being a colony and became a country, there have been periodic attempts to reform or abolish the Canadian senate, the body referred to by Sir John A. Macdonald as ‘a chamber of sober second thought.’
Over the ensuing decades, a handful of reform measures have passed, but every concerted attempt to abolish the senate has foundered on the rocky shores of constitutional law.
The difficulty or impracticality of abolishing the senate has never stopped politicians from vowing, if they get elected, to do away with it. It is pretty much an empty promise and can be made without much likelihood of ever coming to fruition.
Some senate reform measures require the simple consent of a majority of the provinces, plus passage of a bill in the House of Commons and senate outlining the reforms.
Other reforms or abolition are much more complicated and involve constitutional change, which requires the consent of all 10 provinces, something either Quebec or Ontario will almost certainly block forever.
If approved, the constitutional change would also likely require approval of the British parliament.
All this would probably amount to is a true bonanza for constitutional lawyers, then things would go back to the normal activities of the ‘chamber of sober second thought.’
Although senators are technically appointed by the Governor General, the appointments are always based on the recommendation of the prime minister.
Many of its critics would argue that the senate has become irrelevant and powerless, but the senate can and periodically does propose legislation. The House of Commons has also had some proposals introduced first in the senate, where the topic can be more fully discussed.
Macdonald originally conceived an appointed senate as a means of providing regional representation and as a means of dampening a potentially overzealous House of Commons.
That concept of regional representation now stands as the biggest barrier to significant senate reform as Ontario and Quebec each have 24 senators, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island have a combined total of 24, while the four western province have a combined total of 24. The Northwest Territories, Inuvit and Newfoundland share the remaining nine senatorial appointments. Quebec, Ontario and the small eastern provinces have consistently opposed any diminution of their dominant positions.
With 22 vacant senate seats, it appears Prime Minster Stephen Harper is in no hurry to replace departed, retired or suspended senators and has announced it will be up to the provinces to devise a workable proposal, a highly unlikely event.
NDP leader Tom Mulcair has historically wavered on the issue of the senate, but most recently said he is in favour of abolition.
The other alternative is for the governor general to fill the vacant seats without recommendations from the prime minister, something many constitutional experts agree is legally sound, but would likely precipitate a constitutional crisis.
If this all sounds too dry and too complicated, the topic of senate abolition or reform will likely be with us for a long time, just the way high-priced constitutional lawyers like it.
Of course, there is always the possibility that Harper, if re-elected, could fall back on his Reform Party roots and work towards a Triple ‘E’ Senate: elderly, elite and emasculated.
Oh, I’m sorry, that’s what we have now.
Sandy Macdougall is a retired journalist and former city councillor.