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Senate Reformers and the House of Mirrors


by James Nantau


The Montréal Review, April 2011




Canadian political quiz.

Name one important accomplishment of the Canadian Senate in the past year? Nothing? Okay, try this, name one essential achievement of the Senate in the past ten years? Still thinking? How about since 1867? Ready to cry uncle?

Don't beat yourself up, you are correct. A nil response is a winner.

Full Marks.

Question two: What is the Canadian Senate? a) the upper house of our parliamentary system b) a receptacle for depositing retired NHLers, CFLers, newscasters and political flunkies c) a hockey team d) a waste of tax money.

That one is tricky because at least two answers appear correct.

You're doing well so far, now dig-in and keep up.

Question three: How many senators are there in Canada ? a) 105 b) too many c) far too many d) more than we need e) all of the above.

I'm guessing you're still maintaining your perfect paper, so here's the final tough question: What should we do with the Senate? a) make it count b) board it up c) maintain status -patronage -quo d) continue to ignore it.

There is only one correct answer.

We have been quite successful at ignoring the superfluous nature of the Red Chamber for 144 years. Yet every now and again, the topic of Senate reform surfaces. Stephen Harper has declared intentions to address reform. To date he has been unsuccessful yet remains determined. There seems to be some misguided notion floating around Ottawa that Canadians want a relevant and elected Senate.

These utterances give me the financial willies.

I am fearful that innocents will foolishly nod supportive at these lofty ideas. Who can afford such things? Not us. Don't dare fall for the smoke and mirrors illusion that Senate reform would be good for Canadians. It won't be.

While Mr. Harper's position that the Senate must not continue 'as is' is laudable, he is incorrect to suggest a reformed Senate should be our goal. We already know Mr. Harper is a government grower - the public service has expanded 13% under his watch. To reform the Senate would lead to further cost escalations and more government. The Senate does little now just imagine giving it real purpose, with senators who need to justify their election. One can easily envision ballooning expenditures as senators become fully engaged in their newfound accountability.

It's important to remember the Senate was modelled after the British House of Lords whose membership was based on land ownership - if you owned sizable estates in old England you were given a seat. It wasn't so much a chamber of sober second thought as an accommodation to the economic elite. The common people were given their lower house while the nobles would hold the upper house and thereby have the last word. All of which was a clever and necessary apparatus at democracy's fragile dawning. But this is hardly worth preserving today, even by 1867 this legislative structure was rendered obsolete and as such the Canadian Senate was already toothless on the day it was built. 144 years of wasted redundancy seems enough careful-time before letting go.

The responsible answer is to abolish this 'relic of the 19 th century.' Of course, say abolish and the traditionalists shudder. But why be afraid to make change? Traditions matter, but history has always given higher marks to those willing to break the mould. Are we incapable of nation building in our own image?

Our solitary lower house has handily over-governed us for nearly a hundred-fifty years, how will doubling our elected government benefit Canadians? And is it just me, or does this sound utterly unaffordable and more importantly, unnecessary. When a surgeon decides your appendix is no longer serving your body he doesn't repair and re-plumb it to serve some other invented purpose - he removes it - and the patient is better off for it.

Perhaps the best way to honour our traditions would be to turn the Senate into a celebrated museum that honoured our past. Visitors could walk through and marvel at the courage we displayed to set our own responsible course.

You are a tax payer, a Canadian, a sensible person. Don't be fooled by these snake charmers, promise-makers, sophists and pick pockets. A Senate reformer is like a fat man trolling a school yard with a pocket full of candy. Don't fall for it...you're smarter than that.


James Nantau lives in Windsor, Ontario. He works in the financial sector and writes freelance. 


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