The worst reason for having a Senate

On the 'dictatorship' that would befall us if the red chamber didn't exist

This story about the possibility of abolishing the Senate uses the phrase “dictatorship” three times and notes that “tellingly, many of the world’s unicameral legislatures have existed in communist states, such as China, Cuba and former members of the Warsaw Pact.”

Here is the fear.

A Canada without a Senate, after all, would be a Canada in which any majority government would essentially be a temporary dictatorship.

“One of the oddities in this debate is people who are constantly complaining about the dictatorial tendencies of the Prime Minister, yet are trying to abolish the one institution that could counterbalance him,” said Tom Flanagan, a distinguished fellow in the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

Former senator Bert Brown expressed similar concerns earlier this year and, come to think of it, we are surely lucky to have made it this far with only the Senate standing between us and tyranny. Never mind abolishing or reforming the Senate, we should be thinking now about how quickly we can move to add a third or fourth chamber to the mix.

Or perhaps the relative weakness of the House does not justify the existence of a Senate. Or, put another way, perhaps the answer to the relative weakness of the House is not to maintain a Senate to act as a check on it.

China does indeed have a unicameral legislature. So maybe we’d all become communists if we abolished the Senate. But maybe we’d become Norway (1st on the UN’s human development index), New Zealand (6th), Sweden (7th), Korea (12th), Iceland (13th) or Denmark (15th). Or perhaps we’d become like any of our own ten provinces, each of which has so far managed to continue holding free and fair elections despite not having more than one legislative chamber.

Maybe the Senate is, or could be, a worthwhile guard of our democratic order. Regardless, the answer to the problem of the current state of the House of Commons is not to maintain another chamber that can act as a check on it. There are various reasons—persuasive or not—to have a Senate and there might be a discussion to be had about how well the Senate has served as a check on the system over the last 20 years, but the weakness of the House of Commons is specifically and primarily a reason to strengthen the House of Commons. That the House isn’t what it should be is nearly beyond dispute. But there are various ways in which it might be fixed, or at least improved, none of which require a constitutional amendment or consultation with the provinces. There are approximately 250 people (the population of the House of Commons minus cabinet and parliamentary secretaries) who should be acting as a check on the government. In 2015, that number will increase to something like 280. Properly empowered and properly expected to exercise that power, they might amount to the sort of horde that could properly save us from tyranny on their own.

All of which is to say that if the House of Commons is not acting as a proper counterbalance, that’s a matter for the House of Commons.

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