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Wednesday, 20 February 2013 13:50

Time for Canadians to have their say on the Senate

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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Canada’s Senate has received quite a lot of media attention in recent weeks and most of it has not been flattering.

Senator Patrick Brazeau was seen in handcuffs after being arrested and charged for assault and sexual assault, which resulted in his suspension from the Senate Feb. 12. Senator Mike Duffy was filmed leaving an event in Halifax through a kitchen backdoor to avoid media questions about housing allowance claims.
The expenses of Brazeau, Duffy and Senator Mac Harb are under scrutiny by an external auditing firm after the media raised the issue of their secondary residency expenses. Questions have also been asked about the expenses and full-time residences of other senators, including Pamela Wallin and Dennis Patterson.
These concerns over financial accountability are obviously important, but perhaps it is time to deal with the real issue. Does Canada need a Senate?
A new public opinion poll by Angus Reid, based on a representative national sample of 1,002 Canadians, was released Feb. 14. It clearly indicated a desire for significant changes to the Senate, with some favouring an elected body and others wishing to abolish it.
Two-in-five respondents, or 40 per cent of respondents, felt the country needs a Senate, but Canadians should take part in the process to choose senators. In Alberta this position was supported by 50 per cent of respondents, the highest level in all the provinces.
Completely abolishing the Senate was supported by 37 per cent, with Quebec residents showing the highest level of support (49 per cent) for this position.
This is the sixth survey done by Angus Reid on Senate reform since August 2009 and the support for abolishing the Senate has steadily increased since then, reaching its highest level in this February 2013 poll.
Only five per cent felt no changes are necessary to the current format of appointed senators while 19 per cent were unsure if Senate reform is necessary.
Responses to other poll questions are also an indication of a public appetite for significant changes to the way the Senate operates.
There was support amongst 66 per cent of respondents for limiting appointed senators to eight-year terms and 67 per cent supported direct election of senators by Canadian voters.
Feelings were mixed about the idea that a panel of distinguished Canadians should be created to choose senators, with 37 per cent in support and 37 per cent opposing it.
A lack of enthusiasm for the current system was also evident from responses to a question about Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach to appoint senators despite his long-standing opposition to the Senate in its current form.
The poll indicated 62 per cent felt Harper was hypocritical. Alberta was the only province where the majority of respondents (58 per cent) felt he was not hypocritical.
There is still skepticism over the potential of Senate reform happening, with 32 per cent expecting that Canadians will never directly elect their senators and only 15 per cent feeling it will happen within the next two years.
Whatever their views on the future of the Senate, the majority of respondents were clear on one issue — Canadians should have their say through a national referendum. A total of 73 per cent supported a referendum to decide the future of the Senate with only nine per cent opposing it and 18 per cent undecided.
Many Canadians probably feel any change to the Senate is better than the current state of affairs, but will an elected body really be an improvement?
One option is to transform the currently unelected house of “sober second thought” into a triple-E Senate — elected, equal and effective. However, that might simply move the Canadian parliamentary system another step closer to American-style politics, where the two chambers become battlefields for the major political parties.
Another suggestion has been the Senate should be a body of elected provincial representatives to provide a stronger regional perspective in Ottawa. How that is any different from the views of Members of Parliament coming to Ottawa from across the country is not clear.
Premier Brad Wall indicated his skepticism about such a role by the Senate in recent media interviews. He noted provincial governments are already fulfilling the role of regional representation, which serves as a check and balance against the House of Commons.
On Feb. 1 Prime Minister Harper asked the Supreme Court for a legal opinion on changes that can be made to the Senate without a full constitutional review.
After hearing from the country’s highest court, is it not time for the government to hear from Canada’s voters?
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post. Contact him with your comments about this opinion piece at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .

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