(Yes, there finally is a part 2, two months after said election. And it’s not actually the part 2 that I had planned to write, so there might even be a third part sometime!)
If you’ve followed this blog over the past couple of months you may have noted, along with my enthusiam for things that live in ponds, my frustration that Canada’s senate is an unelected body.
Normally, the appointed senators just put the rubber stamp on whatever the House passes. But sometimes chooses not to. Sometimes this group of well-salaried, unelected officials decides to block legislation written and passed by the elected representatives of the Canadian people. Ostensibly, this is a good thing; the senate offers a “sober second thought” in case the House passes legislation that’s profoundly stupid. But consider this: in the last session of Parliament, the senate voted down legislation that would have set greenhouse gas emission targets. And in the week before Parliament was dissolved, when everyone expected an election call, the senate had the opportunity to pass two incredibly important pieces of legislation—one which would have enshrined protection for trans people in the criminal code, another which would have sent cheap medication to the developing world—and didn’t bother to. The unelected senate can do real damage.
Now the new government is talking senate reform—finally. (It’s something politicians like to talk about, until they’re in power—and get to appoint the senators themselves.) The current proposal would set term limits for senators and give the provinces the opportunity to hold elections for their alloted seats. This sort of reform opens up many, many disputes involving the power balance among the provinces, and between the provinces and Ottawa, and potentially involving Canada’s constitution. This isn’t what I want to focus on right now, though.
What I want to talk about is this recent Globe and Mail commentary piece (complete with timely photo of the royal newlyweds). Its thesis is this: that the difficulty Canada has had, and will have, in changing the structure of its senate arises from the gradual process underlying its formation, going back to the earliest English monarchs. Canada has never had the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and establish a de novo democracy; it’s all descended from the English parliamentary system with dashes of the American government thrown in. (I believe it was Jon Stewart who said we were the only country ever to gain independence by asking nicely.) There is some good in this—in not having a history of violent uprisings (there have been some, but not very serious). But this process leaves us with anachronisms, the senate being one of them. Many anachronisms are harmless and might as well be upheld and treasured. (I think having a Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod is just wonderful.) Some are not as harmless, but will require a great deal of upheaval and political will to remove, with a relatively small payoff (would not having a senate change the country that much, and necessarily for the better?).
So change, when it happens, is incremental, and rarely completely solves a problem.
Because the rewards of changing the senate in any particular way will be small—it’s really mostly a matter of principal—it’s quite likely that we’ll see a small change—say, term limits for senators—and then will see no reason to go further and abolish the senate because that first change was so difficult. Maybe later the problem will come to a head again, and another incremental change will be made. In the meantime, we will have vestigial organs in our government, some of which are harmful, but not quite harmful enough to try to remove. It is quite interesting to think about what these vestigial organs say about our history. For though the senate is not elected, it has, in a sense, been naturally selected.
And…now I’m using evolution metaphors; time to stop writing.