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Why regional representation is the wrong basis for Senate reform

André Pratte is an independent Senator from Quebec.

Last week, the Public Policy Forum published an insightful report on Senate reform written by former senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal. Their diagnostic of the current ills of the Red Chamber is excellent. The main remedy they recommend, however, could have unfortunate consequences for our country.

I agree with Mr. Kirby and Mr. Segal that there is nothing wrong with being a member of a partisan caucus. Partisan caucuses are not the problem in the Senate. The problem is excessive partisanship combined with the monopoly of power that the two main political parties have exercised over the work of the Senate. As the report notes, "what has developed is a gross distortion of the original intent of the 1864 Quebec conference," when Canada's founders designed the Senate.

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That monopoly is inscribed in the rules of the Senate and in the Parliament of Canada Act, which "creates a partisan bias in the Senate operations," the authors argue. Therefore, what is needed is an in-depth rewriting of the rules and the Act. If that does not happen, they rightly assert, "an independent Senate will become a failed experiment."

Once independent senators are in a majority in the chamber, and therefore in a position to rewrite the rules, it will not suffice to dismantle the fortresses of the partisan caucuses. The Senate can not function with 105 independent senators, each going about his or her own business. As the former senators explain, "standing committees of the Senate need to be populated. Who speaks when, in which debates, needs to be determined. Decisions and trade-offs are necessary. Authority must rest somewhere." In other words, something must replace the rule of the partisan caucuses.

The solution of the report's authors is to organize the Senate around regional caucuses. Senators would sit in one of four regional caucuses – Atlantic, Quebec, Ontario, West – regardless of their partisan affiliation or ideology. Decisions as to committee memberships, speaking lists in the chamber, allocation of offices and travel, and so on, would be made inside those caucuses. Decisions involving the Senate as a whole would be taken by a "senior council" formed by the heads of the four regional caucuses plus the government representative and the Speaker.

This approach, however, carries the risk that senators will come to see all the issues coming before the Senate only from the perspective of their region. Since the region will be the chamber's organizing principle, it will become senators' dominating preoccupation. Instead of having to work across regions, as they must within a national parliamentary caucus, they will always be working with senators of their own region, fixated on advancing its interests.

Canada does not need yet another institution fostering regional tensions. Powerful provincial governments already promote local needs. So do, from time to time, individual MPs and senators, and numerous other lobbies. The Senate as a whole should work to reconcile the interest of the different regions, for the good of the country as a whole.

There are other ways to break the political parties' monopoly in the Senate than the route suggested by Mr. Kirby and Mr. Segal. Whatever formula is retained, it will not happen if the independent senators do not work together to make it happen. It is our duty to make the new Senate a success. As the former senators write: "Independent Senators, no matter how some of them may feel about banding together being in contradiction to their independence … must act in unison at least once – to get the required rule changes to assure their relevance."

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