Ross Urquhart: An alternative path to Senate reform in Canada

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      Senate reform—whenever I hear those words it’s like listening to fingernails on a chalkboard. From the Pierre Trudeau Liberals to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, it always seems to be on the agenda and never part of an action plan. I read that the prime minister has recently contacted the Supreme Court asking what he will be allowed to get away with in regard to reforming the upper house—and the questions range from electing senators to abolishing the Senate altogether. Clearly, his preference has been an elected senate, although, he says, he doesn’t wish it capable of blocking the House. Well, if it isn’t going to have any power, why bother to have it at all—and if it is going to have power how will that improve anything? There might just be a reason why it’s been all talk for over 40 years.

      Has anybody been watching American politics lately? Does the term “gridlock” come to mind? In the United States, they have an elected senate and every bill that passes the House must then pass the Senate and, as we have so recently witnessed, it’s a long and winding road. If one party controls the House and another controls the Senate, the government stalls. Even when both bodies are controlled by the same party, the Senate can’t seem to leave well enough alone. All bills coming from the House are subject to Senate committee hearings, Senate debate, and Senate amendments, often at the encouragement of very powerful lobbies set up by private interest groups that wish to make the legislation conform to their needs—or kill it altogether. Do you know how many pieces of legislation die on the order paper when a session ends? I doubt if you do but the number is considerable and with two elected bodies, both intent on putting their own stamp on policy, all legislation becomes subject to watering down or negligent abandonment.

      Why do the Conservatives, who rally around the theme of less government, appear so anxious to shovel a whole new layer of government on top of us? They live in the halls of power and must know that even more elections and more “representatives”, along with the attendant paraphernalia, and bureaucracy and power groups and personal agendas, can only make it worse. If they truly believe our system is not serving the needs of its constituents, why not fix it, find the problems, and repair them?

      Ultimately, the goal should be to make politicians more responsible to their electorate, but an elected Senate contributes nothing. In fact, as the United States have demonstrated, it reduces the responsibility of elected officials by giving them another group to blame for their failures. Adding a true elected Senate to our system is so wrong it’s absurd.

      Most people who follow politics understand that our existing Senate is a well-recognized, anti-democratic embarrassment. Thanks, primarily, to its traditional role as a repository for political cronies and popular high profile appointees from areas where the government needs support. We accept that it’s long overdue for change and represents an affront to our democratic ideals. Yet, somehow, abolishing it doesn’t quite seem Canadian.

      I personally think we are being presented here with an opportunity to exercise some imagination and, perhaps, humanity—and all we need is to adjust the criteria for those who qualify as senators. Years ago I read of a Japanese program, which made so much sense it stayed with me. Since 1950, the Japanese have been designating certain people who enhance or exemplify the best of their culture, as “living national treasures”. Along with this honour goes a stipend that allows them to continue doing what endeared them to the populace, without having to find other ways of supporting themselves.

      As a lifelong Canadian, I have my heroes and they are not prime ministers or generals or business leaders. They are people who did great things with little more than nothing—sometimes less than nothing. People like Terry Fox who jog-trotted across this country in an inspirational battle against cancer and left us a legacy of grace and determination which we still honor each year. Rick Hansen went around the world in his fight to bring attention and resources to bear on spinal cord injuries and he continues that fight today. Roger Doucet rewrote and sang our national anthem with a passion that still resonates many years after his untimely death.

      None of these people were rich and what they were, or are, doing wouldn’t make them rich. If Terry Fox, for instance, had lived to finish his run he would have done so as an unemployed, disabled young man—albeit, a famous, inspirational, disabled young man, but subject to all the pressures of making a living thereafter. Tommy Douglas, a man voted the greatest Canadian of all time, was a Baptist minister who became Saskatchewan premier and the first leader of the NDP during its early years in Ottawa. His entire life story is one of giving to others and, although he is recognized with many honors, he had to work for a living at a time when he could have been contributing his leadership and experience in other significant ways.

      These are easily recognizable examples of past and present “living national treasures” but I know, too, that homegrown heroes reside in every community. Where I live there are people who constantly contribute through volunteering their time and energy to causes, which wouldn’t exist without their help. They give up time that could be spent with their families or just earning a better living, and they make commitments to keep giving long into the future because they know how important their contribution is, regardless of what it costs them as individuals.

      Instead of honoring political hacks, bagmen, and vote buying appointees with Senate seats and significant financial rewards, these are the people we should be recognizing. These are the people we should be helping do what they have always been doing—exemplifying and promoting what is best about humanity. And the changes to make this happen could take less money and effort than even maintaining the present system.

      Very simply, each province could have a nomination process with a committee to investigate the candidates, and judge whether they meet the criteria. If they pass muster (and to keep Harper happy) they can even be voted on the next time a seat opens up. The only real difference to their role in government would be that their parliamentary voting function would be largely ceremonial—and their attendance only required for special occasions. Mind you, if a large number of them were to speak out against a certain piece of legislation I, for one, would listen.

      If Stephen Harper wants to finally reform the Senate into something that makes us proud of instead of ashamed, here’s a formula—one that could be his lasting legacy if done properly. But, as in all things government, politics reigns supreme, and the method for Senate reform will likely be determined by how many votes it buys in the next election.

      Ross Urquhart served as chair of both a large and successful environmental coalition and of a business development centre located in a resource-based region. He spent nine years as a municipal politician and subsequently managed a failed campaign for higher office. In between, Urquhart completed graduate work in both public administration and environmental studies. More recently, he has authored an e-book entitled Being Reasonable: Plain Talk for Living in the Future. Urquhart may be contacted through his website at




      Feb 13, 2013 at 12:10pm

      A purely ceremonial body with attendance only required for special occasions?

      And this is an improvement? A step towards better government? An efficient use of taxpayer dollars?

      Give. Me. A. Break.

      Mrs MacDonald

      Feb 13, 2013 at 12:11pm

      I favour abolishing the Senate once and for all. It costs too much and it isn't worth it, just look at the current scandals being uncovered with Brazeau and others. While we're at it, let's reform our electoral system and adopt a system of proportional representation. As for the idea of establishing a "living national treasures," I'm not so sure this would serve a useful purpose, in a political sense. There are many other ways in which to honour such personalities. This is politics and I, for one, fully expect anyone in political office to work for their money AND earn it through accountability. We could consider establishing The A-Team (Accountability), comprising a representative from each province/territory. The team would simply have one goal only - keeping our politician's accountable.


      Feb 13, 2013 at 12:36pm

      @ Mrs. McDonald: There is a less-than-zero chance of abolishing the Senate in the next century or two, so advocating abolition is kinda pointless.

      As for the A-Team (Accountability), we already have that. It's called the Office of the Auditor General.

      What we don't have is a government that is willing to listen and act.

      K Taylor

      Feb 13, 2013 at 12:38pm

      The senate does a lot of good work, often in a non-hyper partisan fashion like we see daily in the House of Commons. Watch the Senate on CPAC someday; you will be quite surprised. With the tone of the current Conservative Party in the house however, we do need to urgently make some reforms so it does not become of the meaningless polarized rancour of the house.

      The easiest way to reform the senate is to simply follow an appointment process not unlike the US has with their judges. This would give the opposition the chance to put question to the Prime Minister and the nominee alike, something the media down south with good coverage can cause quite the stir.

      This would terminate our current, "Here are my new Senators" over before it began style which easily allows political hacks and party bagmen to land cushy jobs in top posts so they can get paid handsomely for doing political work.

      While a majority government would of course still be able to ram through whoever they wanted, at least there would be a vetting process whereby opposition and the media could cause a stir before the appointment was final.

      The senate is actually a very good institution - provided the right people are in it (I do agree with Trudeau on that one). That means people who take their Senate work seriously, attend regularly, and who properly represent their regions.

      Electing senators is a thoroughly bad idea; unless they are elected on very long terms (ie. 12-16 years). The Senate is useless if they are merely consumed by the politics of the day as is the House.

      However there does need to be a better way of removing Senators who dont take their job seriously or who are unable to conduct the job they took on - and the Senate can't be the ones policing themselves. I am in favor of the Supreme Court of Canada handling Senate punishments for senators who have run astray, including dismissal, removal, fines, and any other useful measures.

      Having the senate watchdog be the House of Commons wont work, because again, then the Senate is consumed by politics of the day, precisely 180' from the reason for it's creation in the first place.