The Senate: The only thing standing between us and tyranny

Bert Brown fears what abolishment would bring
Governor General David Johnston delivers the Speech from the Throne in the Senate Chamber on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Friday June 3, 2011. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Conservative Senator Bert Brown worries about what will happen if the Senate is abolished.

The outgoing elected senator from Alberta and the government’s point man in the upper chamber on Senate reform is adamant that reform is needed instead of abolition because without the Senate, Canadians could become subject to the dictatorial whims of a prime minister.

“It’s one of the five major institutions of the Canadian government and if you were to take that away, you’d just be creating a dictatorship,” Brown said in an interview in his office overlooking Parliament Hill. “Anytime you get a prime minister that won’t listen to anything but his own advice, you get some of the crazy things that we’ve seen.”

The lack of a second chamber, for instance, is why all of this country’s provinces have long since ceased to be functioning democracies.

But then Senator Brown also seems to believe that prime ministers have already carried on like dictators.

“What I’ve finally learned in the last little while is we’ve had too many prime ministers that became their own dictatorship. Take a look at it. When you are young — reasonably young — and you’ve just become an MP, if you have any liking of the job at all, you’re not going to criticize the prime minister of the day. If you get to be a minister, you’re certainly not going to speak even against the prime minister,” Brown said.

So the Senate must be maintained because the House of Commons cannot be trusted to hold the prime minister accountable.

This seems rather defeatist and I’m not sure how much evidence there is to suggest that the Senate has generally acted as a regular and worthwhile check on the prime minister’s power—ironically, in the case of Mr. Harper, the Senate might be preventing him from moving forward with legislation to reform the chamber—but perhaps Mr. Brown’s concerns open the door to a grand bargain on parliamentary reform. To deal with his concerns, let’s amend the Elections Act to remove the power a party leader has over the ability of individuals to run under the party banner, let’s reform Question Period to reduce the power of the parties to determine who gets to ask questions, let’s reform the estimates process and let’s empower the committees of the House. Then, with the House better empowered, we can safely the abolish the Senate.