At the time this article was published Bob Rae
represented York South in the Ontario Legislative Assembly. He was Leader of
the New Democratic Party of Ontario, and was the Member of Parliament for
Broadview-Green wood from 1978-1982. He testified before the Special Joint
Committee on Senate Reform, September 8, 1983.
0ur country's federal system is under
tremendous pressure, and has been for many years. it has always been an uneasy
partnership between English and French Canada and between Canadians in
different regions. Today the strains on our Confederation from these sources
are greater than ever.
The Canadian partnership has survived. Its
survival, however, can hardly be said to be a result of good planning. It
survives because we have been ingenious in devising ad hoc solutions to
pressing problems and because the players in the game have generally approached
the issues with goodwill. I am convinced, however, that the partnership would
have thrived and not just survived if our federal institutions were more
democratic and were more reflective of the diversity of the country. I am also
convinced that the time for relying on "adhockery" and goodwill is
running out. The problems of institutional reform can no longer be ignored.
I want to say clearly at the outset that I
disagree with the premise that it is appropriate to consider the reform of the
Senate in isolation from the broader context of political and institutional
reform. It makes no sense at all to me to be looking at the reform of an
anachronistic and undemocratic institution like the Senate and to be
considering changes that would purport to make it into a genuinely federal
forum without looking as well, or I would even say instead. at the inadequacies
or problems with other federal institutions which are supposed to serve all of
Take the House of Commons itself, for
example. Our first-past-the-post system of electoral representation in the
House of Commons does little to allow for the representation of regional
minorities, Majority governments have existed and governed with only a plurality
of support nationally and with virtually no representation from significant
parts of the country. One need only look at the political map of Canada today
to see the damage that this can cause.
Our parliamentary institutions were clearly
modelled in 1867 on those of Britain at that time. Surely it is hardly a
radical suggestion to say that the Canada of 1984 is profoundly different from
the British unitary state of 1867. Canada's Senate was not seen at that time as
in any sense representative of the federal principle. Rather it was intended,
as was the nineteenth and early twentieth century House of Lords, as a kind of
property brake on the democratic principles emerging in the House of Commons.
The House of Lords, and hence in conception the Senate. existed to keep the
democrats (I say "democrats" and not necessarily "New
Democrats") from getting carried away. That, in concise terms is the basis
of the cliché about the Senate as a source of sober second thought and the
concern consistently expressed in this last century. not confined to Canada,
that second chambers were necessary to protect business and commercial
interests from the Workings of popular government.
In its conception and in its operations, the
Senate is neither regionally representative in the sense that we understand it
today, nor is it democratic. In tact the Canadian Senate is an undemocratic
institution working at the heart of democratic government. That fact, combined
with the history of the Senate as nothing more or less than a tool of patronage
in the hands of the party in power, has led our party to the conviction that
the Senate should be abolished. The many resolutions passed on this subject by
conventions of both the CCF and the New Democratic Party, as well as the motion
that has been frequently brought forward in the House of Commons by my former
colleague, Stanley Knowles, are well known.
Lord Palmerston is said to have remarked in
the nineteenth, century that the British Foreign Office really served as a kind
of indoor relief department of the British aristocracy. The same can readily be
said of the Canadian Senate, in the sense that it serves as an indoor relief
department for two major political parties. As such, the Senate has no public
credibility as a democratic institution.
At the same time – and this perhaps is
another problem we have to address – the Senate has failed to play a role as a
specifically federal institution as do popularly elected second chambers in
most other federal systems of governments, such as those of Australia, West
Germany. and the United States. The constitutional requirement for provincial
representation merely ensures that the politically faithful in all parts of the
country stand a chance of winning the big prize. The practice of appointing the
occasional senator from the Official Opposition simply underlines the role that
senatorships play within the patronage system.
In addition to its credibility as a
democratic institution, the Senate now faces a problem with its credibility as
a federal institution.
I frankly tail to see how an institution
that is so discredited in the public's eyes on democratic as well as regional
representational grounds can be resurrected as a serious political force in
Canada, no matter how great the reform that is contemplated. My own view is
that we should simply agree to scrap the Senate and then start afresh to look
for Canadian solutions to the problems of our federal system.
It is difficult to see how a mature federal
system can really function without institutions that are both democratic and
reflect the regional nature of the country. Canada must surely stand alone as a
federal system without such institutions. It is clear that the absence of
momentum for real reform is a sign of the sickness in our federal system.
The current deadlock on the question of
changing and reforming federal institutions must be broken. No doubt it will be
difficult for parties that have long grown accustomed to the luxury of
patronage to discipline themselves and to engage in real reform. Similarly, it
is not hard to see that since most of the members of the governing elites of
the Liberal and Conservative Parties are potential recipients of the bonanza of
a cash-for-life Senate appointment, they will find it difficult to become
driving forces behind reform.
So I start from the premise that the Senate
should be abolished. It serves neither federalism nor democracy. The question
then becomes: what reforms and what new institutions are needed to strengthen
the Canadian federal-provincial partnership? I must confess that I see serious
shortcomings in some of the proposals currently on the table.
The proposals that have been advanced by
several provincial governments for a provincially delegated and strengthened
Senate have, I believe, the potential to create real problems. The major
problem, as I see it, is that these proposals would give provinces direct power
over areas that have been specifically granted to the national government by
the BNA Act. It is hard to imagine any provincial legislature agreeing to the
presence of a federally appointed body deciding upon areas of provincial
jurisdiction, I have a similar difficulty with the idea of making the second
chamber a body simply made up of delegates from provincial governments or,
indeed, from provincial legislatures.
My own preference in approach would be to
look at the institutions that have developed on an ad hoc basis to deal with
regional problems, most notably the federal-provincial conference. I have two
reasons for making this suggestion: first, I am enough of a common law lawyer
to think there must be some inherent legitimacy in the Canadian context to an
institution which has grown up on its own as a solution to a problem. Second, I
think it is unrealistic to expect that a body such as the Senate would ever be
able to replace federal-provincial bargaining as a way of solving problems in
There is a reluctance to reform the Senate,
not only on the part of the older parties and the federal government. but also
from provincial governments. If you give enhanced powers to a Senate that is
supposed, in some sense, to be representative of the provinces at the federal
level, that in itself would, I think, give as much cause for concern to the
premiers and to provincial legislatures as it would to the House of Commons and
to national governments. So if reform is ever to get off the ground. it has to
start with a realistic appraisal of the problem: regional and interprovincial
tensions which the Senate can not even begin to touch or understand. and a lack
of other federal institutions with both national and provincial credibility.
We need a fresh look at the way the Canadian
political system and Canadian federalism operate. I do not think we should be
limiting options for change to the Senate or, for that matter, to any aspect of
the Canadian political structure. I think the Senate is frankly irrelevant and
anachronistic and I think that view is shared by the majority of the Canadian
The other suggestion that has been made ...
and I have heard it made by many senators, Senator Frith and Senator Roblin
most recently in my memory..., is that the Senate should be popularly elected.
The dilemma one gets into there is whether we, at this point in our history,
really either need or want a fully constituted second chamber that would be a
direct rival to the House of Commons in terms of its potential power and its
possible make-up. That is something one can discuss. I suppose one could look
at limiting the ability of that institution to act as a kind of veto power on
the federal House of Commons, but it one die that the question would then be,
well, what kind of possible role can it really serve if ii is simply going to
be a sounding board for ideas and not have any real power? I know that many
senators have expressed to me, and I think expressed publicly, their
frustration that they do not have the kind of role in the system that they
would like to be able to play and to give credibility to the institution, it is
important to be popularly elected.
In my view, that is true. The only way you
are ever going to give any credibility to a second institution is to have it
popularly elected, and I think the idea of provincial nomination is an unhappy
half-way house. I will remind you that the American Senate was appointed by
state legislatures until 1913. It was reformed in 1913 precisely because people
felt, first, that the process was in some senses as much liable to abuse as any
other kind of appointment system by a legislature one can think of. abuse in
terms of the power of majorities. Second, it did not have the credibility and
degree and depth of support as an institution that it needed to have. That
experience led the Americans to move, in 1913, to the amendment that led to
popular representation and popular election.
Popular election is one reform that has
superficial credibility. The problem that I have with it is. what potential
impact is that going to have on the ability of national governments to govern?
What kinds of powers do we give to that body? What kinds of powers of veto? It
you do not give it substantial powers to initiate legislation, then what are
you doing it for in the first place? I question whether it is really possible
to put that on the agenda, given the views held by provincial governments and
federal governments for some time.
I come back to my main thrust: it seems to
me that Senate reform may well be a nonstarter, even if you cast aside my own
views with respect to abolition. I think it will be extremely difficult to achieve
a national consensus on genuine reform. Perhaps we should be looking in a more
practical way at the potential for reform of an administrative kind, such as
expanding the role of a federal-provincial secretariat, and other more
practical solutions. I happen to believe that is the area where change is going
to come and not in the area of a major, new, resurrected role for Canadian