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Senate reform is a dumb idea past its time

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Senate reform "light" is the last thing Canada needs.

The Senate, already discredited, would become even less functional and more redundant with a two-tiered house divided between a new class of senators who are elected for one nine-year term and the old class of appointed senators who serve until they're 75.

Elected senators would be a useless addition to the elected MPs. Far from championing different points of views, they would follow the same political lines since the province-wide elections of senators would be held in the same way as regular federal elections. Nobody could be elected to the Senate without the active support of a political party. The Senate, therefore, would become even more politicized than it already is.

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Initially, Canada's Senate, like Britain's House of Lords, was an institution that provided the elites with a safeguard against the supposedly impetuous and ill-informed decisions of the legislators of more modest origin who sat in the House of Commons.

Nowadays, the only reason justifying the maintenance of a Senate would be to provide the legislators with the intellectual input of an assembly of outstanding citizens from various walks of life who would cast a non-partisan and wise look at legislation tabled in the Commons. Unfortunately, this is not - and never has been - the case.

By and large, the Senate never fully performed its role as the "chamber of sober second thought." While a number of senators (such as Joan Fraser or Serge Joyal, for instance) take their role seriously, the Senate is mostly filled with party cronies, and has largely served as a comfortable retirement home for former politicians, most of whom blindly vote along party lines.

Senate reform was the main demand of the defunct Reform Party, and for good reason. A "Triple E" Senate (elected, equal and effective) was seen as the answer to the flagrant under-representation of the western provinces in the Commons. But this injustice is about to be erased, or at least considerably alleviated.

At the time of Reform, Western Canada "wanted in," as the party's slogan said. Now, it's in. A party born and bred there is in office in Ottawa, and with a majority to boot. And a soon-to-be-tabled bill will increase the seats in the provinces that are demographically expanding (British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario).

Only three premiers (from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan) have voiced some, albeit lukewarm, support for Mr. Harper's proposed Senate reform - and my guess is that electing senators is not the top priority of their citizens. Ontario wants the Senate abolished, and Quebec is determined to mount a legal fight against Senate reform up to the Supreme Court, on the grounds it should be approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.

Why lose time on a reform that no one is demanding, that no one needs and that's probably doomed to be declared unconstitutional?

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About the Author
Economics Reporter

David Parkinson has been covering business and financial markets since 1990, and has been with The Globe and Mail since 2000. A Calgary native, he received a Southam Fellowship from the University of Toronto in 1999-2000, studying international political economics. More

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