In his contribution to this section, Stéphane Dion uses the metaphor of the elephant in the room to highlight what he sees as the Senate’s most intractable problem: unbalanced provincial representation. As long as Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have ten senators each while the much more populous provinces of Alberta and British Columbia only have six each, none of the Senate’s other deficiencies can be remedied.
Elephants also have another metaphorical meaning, and it too suits the Senate. In the parable of the blind men and the elephant, the elephant presents a different aspect to each of the men who touch it, and each comes to a different conclusion about what the elephant is. Our contributors are not blind – they are all astute political observers and practitioners – but each of them sees a different source for what all agree is a crisis of the Senate.
For Tom Flanagan, the source is the method of partisan appointment. The patronage power of choosing senators, he argues, has become a burden even to the government that exercises it. Since the constitutional obstacles to either a fully elected Senate or abolition of the Senate appear insurmountable, he recommends establishing provincial advisory committees to depoliticize the appointment process. He finds a useful model in Britain, where an independent House of Lords Appointment Commission recommends nonpartisan members for appointment to the upper house.
Stéphane Dion rejects Flanagan’s proposal, maintaining that unless the issue of unbalanced provincial representation is dealt with, any reform that would give the provinces a voice in the selection of senators would only make things worse. He suggests some procedural changes that would enable the Senate to better fulfil its role as a chamber of “sober second thought.”
Vincent Pouliot digs deep into our past to find the source of the Senate’s problems. In his account, the Fathers of Confederation intended the Senate as a voice for the local and regional interests of the provinces at the heart of the federal legislative process. Such a Senate would be equipped to act as a balance to the House of Commons and prevent abuse of federal power. However, this intent was never carried out. Pouliot draws our attention to the 14th resolution of the 1864 Quebec Conference as a useful starting point toward creating a more effective Senate – and a more accountable federal government.
photo courtesy Intiaz Rahim/Flickr