In defence of the Senate

Sheryl Saperia

The Senate has faced vociferous attack in recent weeks. Accusations abound that an appointed Senate has no right to dissent from Conservative MP Michael Chong’s Reform Act, which was approved by a majority of members of Parliament in the elected House of Commons. The Mike Duffy trial continues, and at the time of writing, the Upper Chamber was bracing for fallout from the auditor general’s report on senators’ expenses. 

If spending rules have been vague, they should be clarified and enforced. Better oversight is surely necessary, too. But the attacks launched against the Senate as a whole and the calls to abolish the institution itself as a result of improper expenditures by a handful of individuals or because of a delay in passing Chong’s bill are wrongheaded. 

The Senate produces high-quality and cost-effective studies and reports that often inform government positions. It reviews legislation passed by the House to ensure that no errors have been made and no considerations have been overlooked. The Senate can also serve as a place from which legislation can originate when the House of Commons is unable or unwilling to act first. 

Through my own experience shepherding legislation through Parliament, I found the Senate to be more collegial and less partisan than the House of Commons. As a witness testifying before Senate committees, I was faced with thoughtful, substantive questions from senators of both parties. There was a real sense that senators wanted to glean as much information as possible to ensure the best version of a bill was put forward. In the House of Commons, outside experts were pigeonholed as either government witnesses or opposition witnesses before they even delivered their opening remarks. It was not uncommon for partisanship to affect the nature of the questioning and exploration of the issues. 

Abolishing the Senate is not the answer. Neither is an elected Senate. While Senate appointments on the advice of the prime minister are far from a perfect option – and surely that process can be improved – senators are free to focus on the work at hand rather than getting re-elected. Why remake the Senate in the image of a House of Commons so lacking in efficiency and harmony? In the United States, the Senate and the House of Representatives are often deadlocked as both compete for the same type of elected political space. Having both chambers of Canada’s Parliament elected and hyper-partisan will create more problems than it solves. 

As for the Senate’s handling of Chong’s bill, coverage has been decidedly one-sided. How can an appointed Senate, the media charges, not immediately assent to legislation that has passed through a democratically elected House, especially when the law relates to internal workings of the House? 

For one, the subject is a matter of interest to all Canadians and certainly for political parties as a whole, of which senators are a part. 

More importantly, though, the Senate’s foundational purpose is to be a chamber of second sober thought, not to rubber stamp bills. In Sir John A. Macdonald’s words, “There would be no use of an upper house if it did not exercise, when it thought proper, the right of opposing or amending or postponing the legislation of the lower house. It would be of no value whatever were it a mere chamber for registering the decrees of the lower house.” 

Would protests be so loud if the Senate were delaying the passage of Bill C-51, a counterterrorism law that has drawn the ire of many academics? It seems that the Senate is being criticized for moving forward with a bill the media dislikes, and criticized again for deliberating on a bill the media admires for its attempt to curtail a powerful prime minister.   

Problems in the upper chamber must be aired and resolved. But altering our constitutional framework by abolishing or even electing the Senate is a mistake that requires some sober second thought. 

Sheryl Saperia is director of policy for Canada at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.