Sober Thought Squared

What follows is the sole responsibility of the author. The opinion(s) do not represent, implicitly or explicitly, the positions, policies, or opinions of Slaw or any other institution that I am in any way remotely attached to…. heck I don’t know if the opinions herein reflect that of anybody else period; however, deep breath…. I, Mark Lewis am a supporter of the Canadian Senate… there I said it!

I am not a supporter of feeding at the pork barrel but I am unwilling to throw the baby out with the bath water. The Canadian Senate was designed to serve a useful pupose in our legislative system that of “sober second thought” (bonus points for naming the originator of that ironic quote without looking it up); an essentially non-partisan body composed of experienced legislators and public minded folk who have the ability to take a (more or less) neutral view of legislation and propose refinements that would help make the proposed legislation function more smoothly (coulda used some o’that with the ol’ internet surveillance bill to name but one recent example) and that has regrettably changed. Do our legislators in the lower house exhibit a need for an experienced second opinion? I think that would be hard to deny, so we have the institution to that and yet popular rhetoric is aimed at getting rid of that institution. Have individual Senators and the political parties treatment of the Senate brought this about? That is undeniable but perhaps instead of calling on those parties to get rid of the institution perhaps we should be calling upon them to clean up their act in their treatment of the institution.

My concern is that the blather that is produced fails to acknowledge the purpose of the institution, I won’t go into any more detail on that when I can link to an effective short story link to an article which does the job for me. The key thing from that article that I want to recite is that the Senate is “intended to provide checks and balances to Canada’s parliamentary system.”

In summary, I will quote Sir John A. Macdonald:“It must be an independent House, having a free action of its own, for it is only valuable as being a regulating body, calmly considering the legislation initiated by the popular branch, and preventing any hasty or ill considered legislation which may come from that body, but it will never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.””

More Senate quotes


  1. Michael (Mickey) Posluns

    I’m delighted to meet Mark Lewis, author of “Sober thoughts squared” via SLAW. I have been following Senate Debates and committee proceedings for about 50 years, since I discovered them in the North York Reference Library in my last year of high school. The initial attraction was the low level of partisanship and the higher degree of literacy than the Commons Debates. Then I discovered committee proceedings, which have long been the heart of the Senate’s work.

    Canadian ignorance of our institutions combined with a boycott of Senate coverage by much of the media combine to fuel the antipathy. Many of the Committee Reports have been quite ground breaking. The Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples has produced at least a dozen significant reports since “Forging New Relationships” in 2000. When testimony is reported the name of the committee is almost always omitted. This is the case not only in the main stream media but even in some ostensibly professional journals. A recent report in a journal for medical academics reported that a certain professor had “testified before the Senate about …” Well, he had testified before a Senate Committee studying a bill on sentencing and criminal responsibility. I inquired of the journal editors whether the same attitude to accuracy prevails in their medical coverage.

    One point I have not raised elsewhere is about an impeachment of a Supreme Court of Ontario judge, about my first year at Carleton U. Some skullduggery from his time as mayor of North Bay came to the surface. He refused to resign. Judges can only be removed by a resolution of both Houses. I happened to drop in to the Senate gallery on the day that the then Leader of the (Diefenbaker) Government in the Senate, Walter Aseltine, gave notice that two days hence he would move for the movement of the judge from N. Bay. His offence was at least as grievous as the crimes of which Senators have been accused in the last couple of years (Brazeau excluded). Nobody suggested abolishing the judiciary. We seem to be content merely to rename the courts periodically.

    Michael (Mickey) Posluns.

  2. I agree with Mark and Mickey that Senate committees often do useful work. They bring expertise to the table that Commons committees either don’t bother with or spend their time scoring political points with. They often improve legislation. Whether Harper’s Senate appointees reflect his government’s intense partisanship to the point of harming that capacity, I don’t know. My impressions date from before his time.

  3. Abolishing the Senate would be a positive development. Historically the Senate, or the second Chamber in many political systems, was a political institution acting as a bulwark against democratically elected political representatives in the other chamber. In Canada the Senate has served as a parking place for the rich ruling political and economic class or group to oversee the House of Commons. However over the last few years it also served to place burned out bureaucrats and politicians, entertainers (Banks, Wallin and Duffy more recently) and hockey players. Rarely have these persons been ‘qualified’ in the traditional sense of the word. As well political hacks and election organizers historically held pride of place (Keith the Rainmaker and Akins). Watching the Senate committee hearings is usually a painful experience as politicians and bureaucrats dance circles around the Senators and treat them as swine receiving pearls. The Senators invariably thank these witnesses in glowing terms and fall over themselves apologizing for having to go quickly because of the time constraints. One would think if the subject is important then, time should be allocated. It would be better to take the Senate money and put it to good use.

  4. Ginger, your argument is not against the institution of the Senate, it is against the individual Senators and the PMs that have put them there, which I agree with. That is the point myself and the other were trying to make, it is not the institution, it is how it has been used. The institution serves a useful role why don’t we demand that it be used properly rather than, the very difficult process, of trying to abolish it? The Senate costs approximately $100 million per year, which relatively speaking, is a drop in the bucket of a federal budget of circa 200 billion dollars. A conspiratorial minded person might even think that people wanted public perception of the Senate to turn this way over the long run, but I’m not about to run around Ottawa looking for grassy knolls.

  5. I don’t care if its an elite collection of the 100 biggest brains in the country making great decisions. In the 21st century, the idea of an undemocratic, unelected, unaccountable “upper chamber” making legislative decisions is ridiculous. And its astonishing to me that anyone prefers to be governed by such an illegitimate legislature.

    If it does great work in committee, then make it an advisory body. But to give it a legislative role is absurd.

    Either abolish it or provide for the election of senators.

  6. +1 to Mark’s post. I do believe that the Senate, as an institution, still performs a valuable function. I am not in favour of another elected house … we can see from the U.S. example that this is a formula for gridlock. I am okay with an 8-year term limit, but I believe that senators who are appointed would be best able to provide for ‘sober second thought’ where elected officials may have overreached in pandering to populist demands. First past the post democracy is not perfect.

    The continuation of partisan appointments is what is most troublesome to me. Perhaps appointments should be taken out of the PM’s hands to some committee made up some broader composition: representatives from the provinces, opposition parties, even ‘special interest’ groups ? Legally-trained people are well-represented in the House. Perhaps the Senate can provide further balance, not just regionally, but also in demographics, professions, perspectives ?