Canada’s Senate is Nothing but Dead Weight
Although it has little utility, the body nearly failed Canada on the federal Cannabis Act
Opinions / April 23, 2018
The “Senate Question” has an answer, but it will surely go unanswered in our lifetimes. Last month’s near failing of the Cannabis Act, however, has reminded us that this institution is a dead weight on our political system.
The Senate is designed to be a chamber of “sober second thought.” Unfortunately, when I was watching CBC on March 22, as time began running out, all I could think about was how I could probably do a better job while I’m high on Purple Kush.
I saw Betty Unger, a Harper-appointed senator, arguing against the bill. Her criticisms weren’t very logical, mostly falling along the lines of since-debunked marijuana stereotypes, calling the substance“very dangerous” and noting that THC is fat-soluble, but not explaining why this was a bad thing. She also attempted to argue that legal producers were going to exploit children financially, even though 18 is going to be the minimum age across the country. This person was never voted into authority, never granted powers through a mandate from the people, and that in itself is troubling.
This recent exercise has shown that, especially with nearly all Conservative senators voting against the advancement of the bill, the Senate is still partisan despite Trudeau’s efforts to make it more neutral.
At the end of that day, enough “independent” senators showed up to vote the bill to its next stage, but for a few hours, the chances of un-elected people getting in the way of government was far too high.
The only things that have kept the Senate from being a bigger issue is the fact that by tradition, legislation has almost never stopped there, and at the very least, an elected person gets to choose who sits in the red chamber.
Harper, like most recent Canadian party leaders, wished to either abolish or reform the Senate. He tried in 2014, and the Supreme Court ruled that no party can make these changes with an act of parliament, but must instead reopen the constitution and get several provinces to agree on the same amendment.
One of his other attempts was in 2006 when the Senate proposed a constitutional amendment to limit terms to eight years, and his party also tabled legislation in the house to get provinces to hold their own elections for senators. Obviously, none of this came to pass.
Trudeau’s attempts are a little different. He started a committee to select new senators to appoint them on their merits, as opposed to party affiliation. He also decreed in 2014 that all Liberal-appointed senators were no longer partisan, though they continue to call themselves “Senate Liberals.” The real test of this change will be in observing the way Trudeau appointees vote, should the Liberals lose government in 2019.
But any real change to this institution will be a massive undertaking. Abolishment would require all provinces and both chambers to agree, whereas reform items like term limits and electoral legitimacy would “only” require 7 provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.
There are only two viable ways to deal with the Senate, and most political parties agree with this regardless of ideology: abolish the whole thing, reform it to make it more legitimate electorally, or find a way to make it non-partisan.
In the meantime, we’re stuck with this silly chamber, and as long as they don’t defy the people of Canada, or keep me from smoking weed, they’ll simply remain dead weight.