Managing director Brian Lee Crowley establishes why Canada needs a Senate, and lays out a road map to achieve effective renewal of the upper chamber

Ottawa, November 14, 2013 - What should we do about our misbehaving senators? What we should not do is make rash decisions or promote flawed plans for Senate reform to address the misdeeds of a few who have brought the institution into disrepute with the current spending scandal.

Rather, as MLI director Brian Lee Crowley writes in a new paper titled "Beyond scandal and patronage: A rationale and a strategy for serious Senate reform", the real issue is that Canada's Senate is terribly ineffective in playing its crucial role within our larger constitutional edifice.

"Discussions around the Senate focus entirely too much on the peccadilloes of current senators whose shenanigans, however risible, should not blind us to the vital work the Senate can and indeed must do for Canadians", writes Crowley. His paper lays out in detail why Canada needs a Senate, why reform is necessary, and how it can be accomplished.

When properly designed, upper chambers confer greater democratic legitimacy on national decisions by ensuring that a double majority is needed, one majority of individuals in the lower house, a second majority of communities in the upper house. This is not a job for the premiers, Crowley argues. Their constitutional powers do not include participating in Ottawa's decisions about the national interest. Premiers have an interest mostly in strengthening provincial power.

Crowley identifies five principles to keep in mind in considering Senate reform:

First, an appointed Senate cannot have the democratic horsepower to do its job effectively. Twenty-first century senators require the democratic legitimacy that only elections can deliver.

Second, our parliamentary system requires a Senate that has enough power to influence the government when it really matters, but not so much power that it becomes the government or prevents the government from acting when necessary.

Third, the Senate should not be merely a smaller Commons. The Senate is a separate institution and should have a different mandate, powers, electoral system and terms of office than the lower house.

Fourth, we need to make sure that the Senate has every reason to focus on national issues and questions, and not be mistaken for representatives of the provincial governments in Ottawa. If the Senate is to be valuable it must be a voice for the members of provincial communities, but not of their provincial governments.

Fifth and finally we need to think about the distribution of Senate seats among provinces. There is nothing in logic or our history or the practice of federalism world-wide that says that all provinces should have equal representation. On the other hand, equality is a simple and intuitively appealing principle in that it treats all the constituent communities in a similar way.

How do we get it done?

The government is surely correct that there is little appetite among the public for new rounds of constitutional negotiations à la Meech and Charlottetown. On the other hand this paper argues that real Senate reform (which voters clearly do want) unavoidably requires constitutional change and the Supreme Court is likely to agree. How to square the circle? Ottawa should bypass the bad old approach to constitutional negotiations by tabling a specific reform proposal and appealing directly to the electorate for a mandate to enact its proposals. Given the current mood of public opinion a thoughtful proposal properly explained and defended, would stand a very high chance of being enthusiastically endorsed by voters. The provinces, faced with a federal government proposal endorsed in a national referendum, would find it very hard to resist. If, in addition, the federal proposal was carefully crafted to avoid any provisions requiring the unanimous consent of the provinces, the chances of getting the reforms through the formal amendment process increases dramatically.

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The Macdonald-Laurier Institute is the only non-partisan, independent national public policy think tank in Ottawa focusing on the full range of issues that fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

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