Brian Lee Crowley

Why reform beats Senate abolition every time

If abolition is the answer you get to about the Senate, you are not asking the right question. Only one parliamentary federation in the world doesn’t have an upper chamber and that’s Pakistan — not the place I want to go for lessons in democracy. In this special op-ed commissioned by the National Post, I review why a Senate is a good idea and the reform principles we should employ in making sure ours plays its vital role in our evolving democracy.

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Cameras and politics: a match made in hell

The news that the Senate is about to follow the Commons in allowing television (a mere 37 years later — that’s sober second thought for you!) brought back memories of what the Commons was like before the TV cameras. I share my reflections on how TV has changed parliament in my column for tomorrow’s Ottawa Citizen and many other Postmedia newspapers. Warning for the faint of heart: it ain’t pretty.

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No time to give up on Senate reform

The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled out almost all of Ottawa’s attempt at Senate reform that would skirt the need for a constitutional amendment. So be it (even though I think, as usual, the SCC has abused its power and mistaken itself for God rather than the guardian of the law as actually written…). In my column for the Citizen and other Postmedia papers, I lay out the case why we should redouble our efforts and confront the need for constitutional change head on.

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Our fixer-upper Senate: Renovate, don’t demolish!

In my latest paper (“Beyond scandal and patronage: A rationale and a strategy for serious Senate reform”) for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute I lay out a comprehensive case for Senate reform that would result in a democratically-elected chamber with real power, reduced influence by political parties, equality of representation of the provinces and a constitutional and political role clearly distinct from that of the Commons. Oh, and I explain how to get it through without getting into one of those ridiculous “rounds” of endless constitutional wrangling with the provinces.

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The Canadian Senate: No place for angels

In my latest column for the Ottawa Citizen I explain why it is pure fantasy to think that “getting the politics out of Senate appointments” will fix the Senate. James Madison explained 200 years ago in the Federalist Papers that if human beings were angels, we wouldn’t need to worry about checks and balances and well-designed institututions. But since people are fallible, we need to design institutions to compensate. That’s why we need to fix the Senate, not the appointments process.

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Why senate reform trumps abolition

New column: why if Senate abolition is the answer we’re asking the wrong question:

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Senate reform: Abandon hope all ye who enter here

Columnist Lorne Gunter and the National Post editorial board are making a valiant effort to resuscitate Triple E Senate reform in the face of Jack Layton’s revival of the NDP’s traditional policy of simple abolition. None of them has the right answer.

So what’s all the fuss about Senate reform? Twenty-five years ago, the last-but-one natural resource boom in Alberta was brought to a crashing halt by Ottawa’s ham-fisted National Energy Program. The result was a firestorm of western alienation and anger. Despairing of being able to influence Liberal policies, the West rallied first to Brian Mulroney’s Tories and later to the Reform Party. In addition, Alberta became a hotbed of schemes to tinker with Canada’s political structure with the objective of making future NEPs impossible. The Triple-E Senate (equal, elected, effective) was the best known.

But, ironically, Senate reform putting all the provinces on an equal footing would today give extra power, not to the New West, but to the Old East. In a EEE Senate, for example, equalization-receiving provinces would hold a strong majority, making serious reform even less likely and creating a new parliamentary power base arguing for transfers from an increasingly wealthy West. That is the opposite of why Alberta became Senate reform’s great champion.

In any case, Alberta and the West now have an ally they did not have back in the NEP days: Washington. The Americans are thrilled to have such massive energy resources on their doorstep and would adamantly oppose any policy that might put a damper on their development.

Senate reform is chiefly in the interests of small provinces, not large ones. BC figured this out long ago, joining Ontario and Quebec in the ranks of the sceptics. Alberta is now a big province economically and demographically with growing political clout, as Calgarian Stephen Harper demonstrates. Quebec wants no part of equality with tiny provinces in a powerful elected body, but can be wooed by respecting the federal-provincial division of powers, reining in Ottawa’s recent enthusiasm for dabbling in areas of provincial jurisdiction. That suits Alberta and BC too. And we already have a perfectly respectable Canadian-grown institution whose members are elected and where provinces are equal and effective. It is called first ministers meetings.

Senate reform is a second-best strategy for people who think they can’t win political power. Alberta and the West are now political winners, not losers. Moreover, if you are a government whose main power base is in the West, why take on something as politically unpopular and uncertain of success as constitutional reform when a reformed Senate would make your own life hell if you are in government in Ottawa? And if you elect Senators without amending the constitution, as the current government is so unwisely doing, you leave in place the huge imbalance in numbers of Senators among the provinces, the Senate’s theoretically huge legislative power, and lifetime tenure for Senators (which, pace Mr. Harper, it is not clear Ottawa can change without provincial consent).

That would be the worst of all possible worlds: a powerful Senate with little responsibility and no accountability, since both of those things flow, not from your first election, but your second, when you can be held to account for your use of power.  An elected Senate in these circumstances would be on under the one man, one vote, one time rule. Since senators would be chosen until age 75 by a one-time election, there would be no accountability and no responsibility, but the Senate would kid itself that it had a democratic mandate equal to that of the Commons. It would be disastrous. The constitutional battle royal that would be unleashed by any attempt to follow Jack Layton’s plan would be equally unappetising and almost certain to fail.

Would a Triple E Senate be an improvement over what we’ve got? Undoubtedly. Can we get there from here? I don’t see how. Given the obstacles to success, is it a rational issue on which to lavish scarce national political capital and attention? No. Time to move on.

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Brian Lee Crowley
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