A New Senate For Canada: A Two-Step Process for Moving Forward on Senate Reform
Dr. Roger Gibbins, President and CEO, Canada West Foundation
The Canada West Foundation has a longstanding interest in Senate reform, one that began in the early 1980s with the search for more effective regional representation and broadened into a general engagement with democratic reform. As an organization, we have nailed our colours to the mast on this particular issue: we believe that a reformed Senate will better serve all Canadians as we confront the governance challenges of the 21st Century. The issue is not one for the West alone; it is, or at least should be, a national issue.
Senate reform has nonetheless been a lonely crusade, and an extremely difficult one at that. Although public opinion polls make it very clear that very few Canadians support the Senate status quo, progress on reform has been difficult for two reasons. First, there have been genuine differences of opinion about the destination; we have not agreed on a reform design that would best serve the interests of our wonderfully diverse country. We need a design that accommodates not only regional interests, but also those of an increasingly diverse demography. Second, and most importantly, there has been no agreement on the appropriate process of reform and a fair bit of reluctance on the part of provincial and federal leaders to commit to the hard and messy work of constitutional change.
We have been caught between two extremes: between those who believe that any departure from the status quo is too difficult to entertain and those who favour abolition. Moreover, the strongest opponents of Senate reform often dress themselves up in reformist garb, arguing passionately that “yes, reform is needed, but just not now and not if it opens up the possibility of constitutional reform.”
The bottom line is that we have not been able to find a viable way forward, and the efforts that have been made, including Senate elections in Alberta and recent legislative initiatives by the Government of Canada, have made little progress. We seem stuck; big, comprehensive reform seems impossibly difficult, and yet more modest reforms to the status quo strike many as counterproductive as there is fear that making the existing Senate more functional could undercut the need for comprehensive reform. So we sit, spinning our wheels, stuck with an institution that has scarcely changed at all since 1867, even though the country it serves has changed almost beyond recognition.
Here’s where the Honourable Dan Hays comes in to offer a way to address immediate weaknesses in the status quo while also providing a path toward more comprehensive democratic reform. His proposal provides breathing room while opening the door to a more fundamental reform agenda. We need both, and Hays delivers both with the inspiration of a reformer and the pragmatism of an experienced politician.
It is important to stress both the message—that incremental and fundamental reform are compatible, and the attributes of the messenger. From his long service as a Liberal Senator, including serving as the Speaker of the Senate, he understands the institution firsthand. He knows its warts, but also its strengths, and its potential. He is an insider in the best sense of the word. At the same time, he has represented Alberta, the cauldron of Senate reform, and thus knows, understands and appreciates the Senate reform constituency. And, perhaps above all else, he is a passionate Canadian with unrelenting faith in the ability of political institutions to serve Canadians and their increasingly diverse country.
None of this is to say that the proposal put forward by Dan Hays is aligned with past and current work by the Canada West Foundation on Senate reform. It is not. However, he offers an interesting and practical path forward, and in this way makes an important contribution to Senate reform, and to democratic reform in Canada. His proposals provide the opportunity to push the debate forward, and this is precisely what the country needs.
If we can find a way to open up a constructive national conversation, then we can turn to how best to design a democratic Senate for the 21st Century. To this end, the Canada West Foundation will play a direct role by bringing forward a variety of reform proposals for consideration by Canadians. Once we can figure out how to get from here to there, we can begin to articulate what “there” should look like. For now, the first need is to convince Canadians that there is a way out of the current impasse. To this end, I applaud the contribution made by Dan Hays. He puts us on a road we need to travel if Canada’s democratic potential is to be fully realized.