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Electing senators is a recipe for paralysis

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/11/2013 (1358 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

CHARLOTTETOWN -- With the Canadian Senate falling on hard times, there is no shortage of proposals for reforming the upper chamber. Some critics would even prefer to abolish the place altogether.

Here in the land of the "Duffster," there is no consensus on what should become of the Senate. There are those who prefer the Senate as is (or with slight modifications), those in favour of a Triple-E, and those partial to outright abolition. (But as a small province in the federation, the abolitionists are clearly in the minority.) The only thing Islanders are really in agreement on is that Mike Duffy should be turfed -- and replaced by someone else as quickly as possible.

Islanders’ views of the Senate are mixed, but they want Sen. Mike Duffy out.


Islanders’ views of the Senate are mixed, but they want Sen. Mike Duffy out.

Other Canadians would be more partial to having senators elected, notwithstanding low voter turnout, as opposed to merely appointed on the basis of political party connections. By having citizens elect their senators, so the argument goes, they will have the consent of the governed and thus political legitimacy and accountability.

Not much thought, though, has gone into what exactly the implications will be for having elected senators -- and presumably elected senators with political power. For instance, who would select the candidates and how long should they serve before facing the voters again? What happens when the political affiliation of the majority of elected senators is different from the governing party in the House of Commons? Further, would those elections be held at the same time as those for the House of Commons and what would the overall costs of those elections be?

Few have considered the possibility of elected senators challenging the positions and policies of a sitting provincial premier of a different political stripe. As representatives of the regions or provinces, would not an elected senator claim to speak on behalf of their province in Ottawa?

Do premiers really want to face serious competition on both the political field and the media stage?

Equally important, elected senators would demand corresponding powers and responsibilities to go along with their new status, if only to show the voters back home what they are accomplishing. Not everyone is aware the Senate, constitutionally speaking, has virtually identical powers to that of the House of Commons.

We should remember here the 1992 Charlottetown Accord -- under the guise of a Triple-E (elected, equal and effective) Senate proposal -- sought to entrench additional powers for senators in terms of energy policy (to avoid another controversial National Energy Program) and vetting appointments to a number of government boards, agencies and Crown corporations like the CBC, the CRTC and the National Energy Board. Do we really want a senate with power to thwart the government and prime minister of the day? Do we want to see the gridlock of executive-congressional politics in the U.S. replicated in Canada?

Arguably, one of the more redeeming qualities about an elected senator is the fact she would not be beholden in any way to the person (that is, the prime minister) who appointed her.

In one sense, it's comforting to know unelected senators can render a judgment without being unduly influenced by anyone or any political party. Nor do they have to be constantly looking over their shoulders to see whether their voting practices reflect fickle public opinion polls or have to pander to a certain constituency in their districts just to get re-elected.

What happens to the independence of the Senate, then, if the place is now populated with elected party politicians?

How would that impact the independent thinking and sober second thought of the Red Chamber? Clearly, one should be concerned about the level of partisanship and politicization -- beyond what it already is -- that an elected Senate would foster.

And if you think the involvement of the Prime Minister's Office in the current Senate scandal is troubling, try to imagine what the level of political interference would be if both the federal government and a majority of senators (as is the case today) belong to the same party. Fearing punishment, what sort of backroom deals, pressure tactics and horse-trading would there be in the upper house then?

Accordingly, those who advocate vigorously for an elected Senate should really be careful what they wish for.

Electing senators not only fuels unhelpful partisanship and legislative obstructionism, but it also empowers those same senators to act on their legitimacy. So instead of a mostly rubber-stamping body, Canada's Senate of elected parliamentarians will be in a position to push back against their counterparts in the lower house.

Of course, all of that inevitably translates into policy paralysis, partisan finger-pointing and frequent political crises. And does anyone think that would be healthy for our democratic process and a responsive federal government?


Peter McKenna is professor and chair of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.


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