A better Senate reform

By Alex Binkley
True North Perspective

Stephen Harper has fixated on Senate reform since long before he became prime minister in 2006. But most of his efforts have been aimed at blunting the power of a Liberal dominated upper house from derailing his legislative plans.

In late March, his government announced another stab at Senate reform by proposing senators only hold office for eight years. As it stands, senators can remain in office until they reach age 75. Past Senate reform proposals from Harper got a rough ride in the Senate. But now Harper holds a slim majority in the upper house and a few more Liberals are set to retire this year enabling him to add even more Conservatives.

The government also says it's working toward an elected Senate but don't hold your breath waiting for that happen because it will need to get the provinces onside. And an elected Senate is a bad idea because then we would have two houses full of politicians battling over which is superior. There's enough politics in Ottawa as it is.

If Harper wants real and effective Senate reform, he could change its role and appoint prominent Canadians who have already made accomplishments in business, health care, education or the arts. Instead of the phony mandate as the chamber of sober second thought, give the Senate a non partisan place in Parliament where it can focus on the problems and challenges facing the country instead of dwelling on the government's legislative mandate. They could all sit as independent Canadians instead of members of the Liberal or Conservative party.

If the government's worried about senators being in office too long, then don't appoint anyone under age 65. If it needs suggestions on possible nominees, check the Order of Canada roll.

Let the Senate delve into the tough issues and propose possible solutions for the government, the House of Commons and the public to consider. The government should welcome their contributions instead or reacting huffily at every criticism. If senators have no issues with legislation coming from the Commons, they should be able to approve it right away. They could still review bills that senators consider deficient.

In recent years, senators such as Hugh Segal, Colin Kenny and Bill Rompkey have spearheaded serious standing committee examinations of poverty, national security and Arctic sovereignty. They're plenty of other good examples. Senator Jim Munson has championed policies for children. Other senators have put their office to good use instead of treating it as a cushy sinecure.

Sometimes these senators are critical of the government, sometimes complimentary. But there's no denying they're motivated mainly by trying to improve life in Canada.

Senator Wilfred Moore from Halifax has a perfectly logical solution. He thinks the Senate should be seen as a permanent Canadian think tank. Spending a decade in the upper house would be an attractive option for people who have done a lot for Canada and have little interest in the political to and fro of the day. It would enable them to give back to the country and use their experience and insights to the betterment of us all.

Best of all, this Senate reform could be done without a constitutional conference. Clean, simple and effective. What more could Canadians ask for?

2 April 2010 — Return to cover.