Senate and Parliamentary Reform: 40 years too late

I remember growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, as a transplanted Torontonian in a Grade 11 Social Studies classroom, listening to a whole classroom full of Western discontent. There were good reasons to be discontented in the 1970s and years previous. If wheat was grown in Saskatchewan, why not process the flour in Saskatchewan? Instead, it was shipped by freight train to Toronto and milled there. I know, because I remember the Five Roses flour mill south of Toronto’s Lakeshore Boulevard before I left for the West. Basically, the argument that seemed to capture the Western Canadian imagination as I saw it in my classroom was that industry jobs were moving east, while the west remained a sparsely-populated backwater of natural resources for everyone else. The Crow’s Nest rate for shipping wheat by freight was costly to farmers while being a boondoggle to the Eastern flour mills. The wheat marketing board, which these days acts as giving a fair shake to all Western farmers while keeping away multinationals which would put thousands of farmers out of business, is considered uppopular by farmers who are frustrated by the board’s habit of severely underpricing the wheat, and for not being able allowed to sell their wheat for “whatever the traffic will bear”. The wheat board, once again, was bowing to Eastern industry and forsaking those they were supposed to help.

The argument as I heard it, was that a big part of the problem was that there was a lack of Western representation in Parliament. That meant that any laws passed or bills tabelled were done largely in favour of Eastern interests. In addition, the Senate, whose purpose was to represent all regions of Canada equally and thus act as a foil to Parliament’s favouritism to the East, was packed with Liberal-appointed senators, largely favouring interests in the East, thus institutionalizing the problem. Obviously, westerners had good reason to be miffed. They, however, faced a humbling problem with a lack of population to justify any added seats.

But forty years on, with Conservatives in power (mostly westerners who were repurposed from the Reform Party of Canada in the most influential positions — most of the rest are absolute rookies with no parliamentary experience) they’re ready, willing, and raring to go with the reforms that were merely dreamt of 40 years ago. But the world has changed from underneath them. Westerners who wanted their reforms (which would still not be a bad idea, to a degree) will have to think of a different reason for wanting them. Jobs are moving out of the country these days, and much less so to Ontario and Quebec. Westerners and easterners alike are now confronted with something beyond our power, which is globalization. The reasons for reform that were so convincing 40 years ago can no longer be used as reasons.

Much of the reforms today are motivated by advice givers from the US-Republican party, and many have said that Stephen Harper’s political style is more consistent with the Republican party: cutting government costs, and being tough on crime. The idea of an elected senate might look good on the surface, but these senators can’t represent the interests of voters, since that’s already being done by the lower chamber. The Senate is supposed to have a different role. It is purportedly a sanity check, ensuring that the interests of minority groups, underpopulated regions and so on, were given consideration in bills that were passed in the lower chamber. The main weakness of the senate is that all senators are appointed by the Prime Minister, greatly politicising the appointments, and once done those senators are there for as long as they want to be. Any appointments made for short-term gain mean that you have to live with these appointments for possibly decades.

Electing a senate has its own problems, in that it becomes reduced to merely just another level of bureaucracy to reflect the interests of voters, thus continuing the tyranny of the majority. In that case, the function of “sober second thought” becomes little more than a charade, so why bother at all? We need a body of people to act as thinkers of the consequences of legislation over the long term. This means that the interest of voters and of worrying about the next election cannot be the top priority of the senate. What is the effect of legislation over decades? What is popular in terms of making it to the next election is not necessarily in the best interests of the country over the long term. But what is needed is to find a way to make these appointments less politicized.