UPPER CHAMBER NEEDS CHANGING, BUT- Proposed "Triple-E" Senate Falls Short of Needed Reform

By Bobier, Paul | CCPA Monitor, September 2007 | Go to article overview
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UPPER CHAMBER NEEDS CHANGING, BUT- Proposed "Triple-E" Senate Falls Short of Needed Reform


Bobier, Paul, CCPA Monitor


Ask most people what Canada's Senate is for, and you'll hear it's a place where retired politicians and other well-known persons go to relax, and occasionally approve bills passed in the House of Commons. Few really appreciate why the Upper House of Canadian politics was created as part of the structure of Confederation. So they are inclined to shrug off Prime Minister Harper's plan to transform the Upper House into an elected, equal, and effective (triple-E) Senate.

There were three main reasons for creating the Senate: to represent the regions of Canada, to provide "sober second thought" to House of Commons legislation, and to represent the propertied folk of the nation. As Ken McNaught noted in The Penguin History of Canada, however, the original reasons for its creation gave way to political patronage.

"In practice," McNaught wrote, "the Senate developed more as a convenient means of rewarding faithful party supporters whom it would be inconvenient or indiscreet to appoint to the bench (judiciary) or the cabinet. The result has been that the Canadian Senate has been even less successful than the (British) House of Lords in opposing the full development of democratic politics centred in the Commons."

At present, the Senate is dominated by Liberal Party appointees. Harper's government hasn't been in power long enough to replace many retiring Liberal senators with Tory appointees, but, even though most of his government's bills have been passed by the Liberal-dominated Senate, Harper still wants to convert it into a chamber that is elected by the people, equal in representation from each province, and effective in protecting regional interests.

In effect, the prime minister wants a Senate similar to the one in the United States, where it is one of the two houses of Congress-and also triple-E.

Some may think the U.S. Senate provides a better check-and-balance to a president's power than the Canadian Senate does to a prime minister's power. Well, sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. Veteran U.S. Senator Robert Byrd points out that the American Senate can be denied important information by the president, and also subject to compliant attitudes on presidential policy.

On the Congressional vote permitting the Iraq invasion of 2003, for example, Senator Byrd wrote: "Presidents and their staffs begin to feel they are untouchable-that they can get away with skating over certain lines because they control information, both public and classified. It may be hard for most Americans to believe, but most members of Congress find it difficult to obtain classified information, even when they request it as part of their committee duties."

In his book The Age of Anxiety, journalist Haynes Johnson claimed that: "Congress too often has failed to protect the people. Members of both political parties gave the president a virtually free hand in implementing new security measures, and turned a blind eye to legitimate concerns about the danger of civil rights abuses arising out of these laws and regulations.

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