A couple of weeks ago Jim Warren, a Liberal strategist who worked for Dalton McGuinty in Ontario and who writes a weekly column for the neoconservative Sun newspaper chain explained why he has become a convert to Senate abolitionism. The Grits, over the last century, have been guilty of a great many crimes against the constitution that the Fathers of Confederation drew up for us in the Charlottetown, Quebec, and London Conferences, but unicameralism was not typically one of them. They left that to the socialists in the NDP. The neoconservatives in the Reform Party had advocated reforming the upper chamber to make it more like the American Senate – democratically elected, with each province being equally represented. The sin of the Grits, however, who have held power in the House of Commons more often than any other party, has ordinarily been to treat the seats in the Red Chamber as rewards for Liberal partisanship.
The Conservatives, who are the only other party to have ever formed a federal government, have succumbed to the same temptation when in office and five years ago the media decided to shine its spotlight on the dubious travel and expense claims made by a handful of Senators most of whom had been Conservative appointees. Far more heat than light was generated in the scandal that erupted and rather than just going after individual Senators for abusing their appointment and treating their seat as a means of personal enrichment instead of an office of public service, the media attacked the Conservative government that had appointed the Senators as if the Liberal Party, to which most members of the Canadian media are loyal sycophants, had a squeaky clean record of appointing only upright, honourable, disinterested, and dutiful individuals. Stephen Harper’s method of dealing with the scandal only added fuel to the flames. At any rate, in addition to the Conservative government, the media also made a target out of the Senate as an institution, mostly on the grounds of its being unelected, and there were loud calls for it to be done away with. Here again the media was being disingenuously selective in the facts it reported. Elected members of the House of Commons are no strangers to the temptation to abuse their expense accounts and enrich themselves at the expense of the public treasury. Indeed, I dare say the problem is much worse in the House than in the Senate.
Was it this scandal that drove Mr. Warren into his newfound belief in unicameralism?
No, he wrote that after that “I was prepared to give the Senate one last chance.”
What has happened since then to make him change his mind?
After a brief mention of the ongoing Senate inquiry into the harassment claims against former Senator Don Meredith he devoted several paragraphs to complaining about how the Senate had delayed the passing of Justin Trudeau’s budget bill. Then he wrote the following:
“Perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back for me is the Senate delaying passage of Bill C-210. This is the private member’s bill of the late Mauril Belanger that changes the lyrics of O Canada to make them gender neutral.”
Now let us think about that for just a moment. Mr. Warren was “prepared to give the Senate one last chance” after the scandal in which Senators were accused of dishonestly claiming inflated housing and travel expenses against the taxpayer-funded public treasury but their delaying passage of a bill is the “straw that broke the camel’s back.” What that translates into is “I am willing to overlook it when you do your job badly, but I refuse to forgive you for doing your job right.”
If Bill C-210 were a bill authorizing the government to take some initiative that needed to happen immediately in order to save thousands of lives then this level of anger over its delay might be understandable. The bill is nothing of the sort. Ironically, Mr. Warren blames the delay of the bill on “pathetic partisan politics” in the Senate when the bill itself is nothing more than an example of playing games with a national symbol in a lame attempt to virtue signal to feminists, one of the interest groups in the Liberal Party’s support base. Think of all the other issues there are out there for Parliament to meddle with. There are probably at least a trillion more important than this one.
As for Justin Trudeau’s budget bill, we are talking about an omnibus bill of the sort that the Liberals complained about during the Harper years and claimed that they would do away with, containing a budget with a deficit close to $30 billion. This is not exactly the kind of legislation that deserves to be fast-tracked through Parliament.
Even if these bills were better and more important than they actually are, however, the Senate, in taking its time passing them, would merely be doing its job. Sir John A. MacDonald, a Father of Confederation and the first Prime Minister of Canada, said, when they were putting the constitution together, that the role of the Senate would be to provide a “sober second thought” to the decisions passed in the House. In other words its job would be to do precisely that which Mr. Warren is complaining about – slow down the passing of bills, by taking the time to think critically about them.
The Fathers of Confederation, in adapting the Westminster model of Parliament to the use of the new country they were building, knew and respected its history and traditions, and understood that the role of criticizing, objecting to, and slowing down legislation was just as important – indeed, more important – than the role of writing and passing legislation. Legislation that is quickly written and hastily passed is likely to be bad legislation. Furthermore, it is not good for the Prime Minister to get his way whenever he wants just because he commands a majority in the House.
This is why there are several hurdles that a government bill must pass before it can become law. It is not enough that it be written by a government that commands a majority in the elected House. It must be heard, and Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, traditionally the second largest party in the House, must be given the opportunity to scrutinize it, criticize it, raise objections to it, and basically hold the government accountable to the House and the people they were elected to represent. Having cleared that hurdle, it must then be heard by the Senate, who review it, and if necessary, recommend alterations or delay its passing. Anyone who thinks that this stage of review is unnecessary, needs to read the chapter of Eugene Forsey’s memoirs, A Life on the Fringe, in which he describes his years in the Senate, and all the poorly-written bad laws they had to deal with.
Mr. Warren appears to think that the Official Opposition is sufficient to hold the government accountable, but the Fathers of Confederation thought otherwise. Mr. Warren objects to an “unelected group of people” holding up government bills but, here too, his thought is miles removed from that of the Fathers of Confederation who deliberately built our country as a parliamentary monarchy. He does, however, reveal himself to be, with apologies to John Wayne, a “true Grit”, for the Liberal Party has never liked the roadblocks our parliamentary system places upon the Prime Minister, who as as head of the elected government is seen the voice of the will of the people, getting his way, and have sought to eliminate these obstacles wherever possible and to reduce the Crown, the Senate, and the elected House as a whole, to mere rubber stamps of the Prime Minister’s will.
Where Mr. Warren feels the Senate deserves condemnation, I insist that it deserves praise, and would suggest that if anything, the powers of the Senate to hold up the Prime Minister’s bills ought to be increased. The only thing that really, desperately, needs to be fixed with our Senate is that the Prime Minister controls the appointment process. For the Senate to truly provide the “sober second thought” that Sir John A. MacDonald envisioned, it needs to be independent of the Prime Minister who ought to surrender his right to advise the Crown on the appointment of Senators to some other group that is in no way beholden to the office of the Prime Minister – perhaps the provincial legislatures.
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