Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Book Review: Protecting Canadian Democracy edited by Serge Joyal

Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew lands in 2015 with a dull thud. Serge Joyal, a Canadian Senator for the Liberal Party, assembled this book to defend the value of the Senate as it currently stands. It includes essays from political scientists and politicians on the positive features of the Senate, how it can be reformed, and why reforms have failed. The book was originally published in 2003 and it shows considerably.

What Protecting Canadian Democracy does well is make a case for the status-quo Senate and explain how it came to be. The book is a collection of essays so it is difficult to assess as a whole as the strength of each individual essay and its effectiveness varies significantly. The best essay in my opinion is "Forty Years of Not Reforming the Senate - Taking Stock" by Jack Stillborn. Stillborn, as the title suggests, outlines all of the major proposals to reform the Senate from the 1960s to the 2000s. The interesting thing about this is how proposed reforms for the Senate have evolved over time. Senate reform pressure originated in the belief that the body had to better represent the provinces, perhaps transforming it into something like Germany's upper house, the bundesrat. In the 1980s, originating mostly from Western Canada, proposals for Senate elections and seat redistributions gained greater prominence and has largely been central to the debate since. I had heard that the Senate had been criticized since the time of Confederation, but I had assumed it was from the perspective of democratic representation. I was surprised to see this was a relatively recent intellectual development in Canada.

According to a few of the authors the Senate was one of the most contentious parts of the negotiations what led to confederation. The explanation is simple. At that time the colonies understood that Ontario's much larger population would dominate the House of Commons. A wise observation given that Ontario makes up a third of the House today. The Senate offered the opportunity to provide a counterbalance. Many of the authors make the argument that the best feature of the Senate is that it represents minority populations and regions within the country. This seemed to be part of the original formulation of the Senate.

Another valuable essay in the collection is "Bicameralism in Federal Parliamentary Systems" by Ronald L. Watts. The Canadian Senate stands out from other upper houses around the world for having an appointed upper house. Watts also pointed out that the trend in recent decades has not been to eliminate upper houses but give them better ability to hold the government to account. This essay provides excellent comparison on how upper houses can function and possible avenues of reform.

I wish to be clear. This book does not fail because Stephen Harper became Prime Minister, but because of the actions the current Prime Minister has put in place since 2006 has left fewer of the virtues expounded in this volume intact. Many of some of the most compelling arguments made in defence of the Senate seem to hardly apply any more. The institutional memory of the Senate was badly undermined when Prime Minister Harper allowed a large number of vacancies to accrue. In the 1990s the Senate released twenty major reports which helped shape policy and political discourse in this country. In many ways they provided a cheaper alternative to royal commissions. Perhaps I am ignorant but the Senate seems to have failed to uphold this tradition in the past fifteen years. I have to imagine this in part is due to the declining number of senators during Harper's early premiership. The Prime Minister Harper appointed a large number of Senators all at once, foregoing his pledge to reform the body which introduced a large class without being introduced to the Senate's traditions. I should note that as I write this 22 vacancies have piled up again.

Perhaps the biggest criticism of the Senate is that it is increasingly losing its credential as the house of 'sober second thought'. In the 1990s the Senate amended only about 7% of the legislation introduced. It was considerably higher in decades past. Between 2000 and 2013 the Senate did not give royal assent to 75 bills. The cause of the vast majority of these appears to be prorogation or dissolution and not the deliberations of the Senate itself. Of course when the Senate goes against the will of the elected House of Commons it can stir controversy because in the mind of Canadians it lacks legitimacy. This is the fundamental contradiction that the authors in this book seem to say is irrelevant, that the appointed model can work and gain legitimacy if Canadians better understand its work.

Serge Joyal and David E. Smith, among others, offers avenues for the Senate of Canada to be reformed. Senator Joyal accepts the consensus view that amending the constitution is not reasonable and explores some of the non-constitutional options. Most of these reforms seem sensible to me, but don't address many of the basic issues people have with the appointed upper house.

Defending the Senate as an institution in the current status quo is difficult for a simple reason. Like the House of Commons it requires many players to act on good faith and carry out their duties sincerely. The Senate could hold impressive and dignified Canadians and legal and policy experts, but that is left entirely to the discretion of the prime minister. There is nothing preventing any prime minister from appointing a wholly unrepresentative group with no better qualifications than loyalty to his/her party. I think this book could badly do with a revision to address some of the obvious decline the upper house has suffered since 2000. I would recommend a selection of the essays, particularly the ones cited above, for those interested in exploring Senate reform. For more casual readers I would say pass on this one, it fails to provide enough insight on the current Senate. 

No comments: