I think I can speak confidently when I say that the question of Senate reform really isn’t that much of a question anymore. The initial premise, that it is unacceptable in a twenty first century democracy to have the high house filled with unelected officials serving well into senility, seems to be thankfully beyond debate at this point.
Any contentiousness surrounding the issue then seems not to be so much on an ideological level as it is on a mechanical one. It seems that it is not reforming the Senate which is a problem, but rather the seemingly endless list of constitutional and provincial problems that would arise from any significant attempt at reform.
Questions of how these elections would take place, and the problems that would arise if they are left in the hands of the provinces, seem to be at the forefront of the discussion. Several of the provinces are already nervous about the threat an elected Senate would pose to the place provincial governments currently hold as the primary representative of their constituents.
While it remains important to preserve the balance between federal and provincial power, another issue for reformists is what would happen if the election of Senators was left entirely in the hands of the provinces (as Harper is now proposing). Each province would need to individually establish protocols for electing national officials, creating the possibility that the Senate may become even more disjointed and embarrassing than it is now.
Any reform of the Senate will necessarily require provincial consent and cooperation (neither of which is being given at the moment) and will need to be written with the utmost care so as to avoid any future legal problems. Consensus, it seems, is as necessary as it is unattainable and so long as there remains grumbling from provincial governments and from within Stephen Harper’s own Conservative party (including the particularly pathetic objection that an eight year term is somehow too short), Senate reform will either arrive in a diluted form or not at all.
The truth is that the Senate is well past any sort of meaningful redemption. It is a bloated, distended carcass with its roots in the same nasty and undemocratic feudalism which places an equally antiquated English monarchy at the symbolic head of our government. It is not just that reforming the Senate would be difficult (indeed many against abolition will tell you that the troubles posed by reform pale compared to those posed by a full and proper abolition) but rather that there isn’t a great deal in it worth saving.
At over a hundred and thirty thousand dollars a year per Senator the Senate is perhaps the great unmentioned drain on the pockets of many a tax-payer, a fact made more bitter still when one considers that not a single one of these officials was elected. It is an embarrassment enough that we still show deference and servility to the English crown, and that our system of government still operates (if only technically) under the rule of a group of gin soaked carnivalesque pseudo-celebrities; can we at the very least pretend we are an individual and sovereign nation, or barring that, at least a democratic one? One doesn’t need to begin listing the great number of Canadian Senators who have no business holding office, or the rather paltry standards for acceptance, to be able to make the rather simple observation that the Senate is a joke. It is one large, expensive, undemocratic joke, and you’re paying for it.
I for my part have no interest in seeing such a wasteful, bureaucratic tribute to monarchy continue to operate within our government, whether it is “reformed” or not. The problem with any reform is that while it is a step in the right direction, it simply isn’t enough to turn the Senate into a respectable or necessary part of our government. As it stands now the Senate is little more than an echo chamber for the House of Commons, a multi-million dollar expenditure which unnecessarily lengthens the process of passing legislation at our expense. It is not just that the Senate is a vestige of monarchist rule in all of its outdated autocratic glory, but rather that it is simply no longer necessary. There is nothing the Senate does that justifies the expense, the bureaucracy and the questionable morality of its continued existence. Even if everything objectionable about it were to be fixed (and seeing as it is a considerable list, it would surely be at a considerable cost of time and resources), it will remain an unnecessary and expensive institution.
The question is not so much one of Senate reform, but one of democratic reform. The former may be enough to keep a sinking ship afloat, but the latter is what I believe to be truly necessary for an individual and sovereign Canada. It is the end of the undemocratic, of the monarchist and of the feudal. It is the acknowledgement that such things have no place in our society and that any deference shown to them is wholly contemptible. It is not acceptable any longer to have a government that is little more than a watered down, patchwork imitation of the English system. It is not acceptable to spend millions of tax-payer dollars on an institution which has become nothing short of a mockery of what it once was. The Senate has long been past saving, and indeed, even if it were not, it is hard to imagine saving it being anything near desirable. With this of course will come the greater challenge of reformatting our system of government to resemble some facsimile of a democratic society, but for those who truly believe in a free and sovereign Canada such things are surely worth the effort. It is the process of self-definition, and it is one that is long overdue.
It is time we free ourselves from the corpse of out-dated and autocratic principles and eliminate the wasteful, pointless bureaucracy that is the Senate. There is nothing desirable in saving this institution, no background purpose or role it fulfills that cannot be replaced by a proper reformatting of government, and the sooner we realize that the sooner we can free ourselves of this embarrassing insult to Canadian principles and Canadian democracy.