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MURRAY RANKIN: Canadian Senate is an outworn tradition
Federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair recently travelled coast to coast with a clear message: an unelected Senate has no place in a modern democracy and it’s time to fix it.
Unaccountable, plagued with scandals and stocked with party loyalists, the Senate long ago lost sight of its original purpose. Rather than serve as a house of sober second thought, it has become a chamber drunk with entitlement. The seemingly endless stream of scandals flowing out of Ottawa has convinced Canadians that it’s finally time to fix this problem.
Conservatives have lost all credibility when it comes to the Senate. Before he was elected, Stephen Harper promised to end the patronage. He hasn’t just broken that promise; he’s broken it 59 times – a new record.
But the real problem with the Senate isn’t just that it lets unelected party loyalists live high on the taxpayer’s dime, it’s that it has actually been used to silence the voices of Canadians’ elected representatives in the House of Commons.
Just before the last election, Canadians witnessed something truly incredible. In small towns and big cities across the country, Canadians campaigned for a vital new bill to address climate change: the New Democrat’s Climate Change Accountability Bill, the most comprehensive climate preservation legislation our country has ever seen. Canadians’ elected representatives in the House of Commons worked hard to see that bill passed—twice. And twice it was blocked by the Prime Minister’s appointed senators.
We on Vancouver Island have another reason to be frustrated with this antiquated institution: we have no representative there. In fact, the Island hasn’t had a sitting senator for a few decades. It is absurd that in a modern democracy we can be taxed but not represented. The excuse of tradition is no longer good enough and Canadians know it.
In other countries, a Senate serves a purpose. In America, an elected Senate gives small states a voice in the nation’s affairs and, through longer terms, allows legislators to take a break from constant campaigning and get down to the real work of governing. Our Senate does neither.
And yet some argue that since change is hard Canadians should just give up, or wait patiently while all of us subsidize senators to the tune of $90 million a year. But even if all parties vowed to never appoint a new senator, this broken system wouldn’t be fixed until 2049. Canadians know we can do better.
In the House of Commons, the NDP worked on a plan to abolish the Senate, in consultation with the provinces. Sadly, Conservatives and Liberals worked together to defeat that plan. In doing so, they voted to keep sending our tax dollars to an institution in which we do not have a single representative, rather than to invest in the things all Canadians need.
Imagine what else we could do with a $100 million a year. How many new schools, bridges and hospitals could be built? How many polluted waterways could be restored and put to productive use? How many seniors could we lift out of poverty and give back the dignity they’ve been denied by Conservative cuts?
Canadians know the status quo isn’t good enough and they know how we can fix it. Every province in Canada manages without an unelected upper house; so can the federal government. The Senate does nothing that cannot be done by the elected House of Commons. Change won’t be easy, but already three provincial premiers are on record in support of abolition. Here in B.C., Premier Christy Clark told reporters, “We don’t really need a Senate.”
The recent Senate scandals are nothing new, but for many Canadians they’re the last straw. More and more, we are seeing the Senate for what it is: a vestigial organ that adds nothing to our democracy – and sometimes gets in the way.
It’s time to pull the plug.
Murray Rankin is NDP Member of Parliament for Victoria.