Some thoughts on Justin Trudeau, the Senate, and demagoguery

Liberal Party Leader Justin Trudeau is getting roundly criticized in the media for recent comments he made standing in support of the Senate in its status quo format and rationalizing it (in French, to a Quebecois audience) as being in “our” interests because Quebec is disproportionately represented in the Senate. He also goes so far as to label efforts by the Conservatives and the NDP to reform or abolish the Senate as “demagoguery.”

There’s a bit to unpack in this story. First, Senate reform itself. I’m not in favour of the status quo Senate for three reasons. Being an appointed rather than elected chamber makes it prone to all sorts of abuse – from cronyism in appointments to lack of accountability once Senators are appointed. Second, being a body filled with lifetime appointees, the Senate doesn’t actually achieve the purported goal of regional balance in decision-making because Senators are not in any way accountable to the regions they represent. Third, the seat allocations in the Senate make a mockery of regional representation – the regions are basically arbitrary.

We’ve had a couple of failed attempts to reform the Senate with the Charlottetown and Meech Lake accords that were roundly rejected. There is the ongoing call from Alberta and some other provincial politicians to have Senate elections, but these proposals are often poorly thought out and where they’ve actually been tried (Alberta holds unofficial Senate elections) the results have been a kind of a hash. In the past Liberal politicians have mocked the Albertan desire to force Senate elections because it would lend legislative power to a body in which Alberta is grossly underrepresented. Far from building up a regional voice, Alberta (and all provinces west of Quebec) would lose the power it currently has in the commons. Any process to move to an elected and effective Senate must be matched with a detailed proposal for how seats in the Senate should be allocated, how Senators would be elected (would all of Ontario seriously vote for 24 Senators?), and how long they should serve.

Since no one’s offering those types of proposals, and most people think Canada’s been getting along fine for the last 150 years without an elected/effective Senate, abolition is gaining momentum and the NDP is taking advantage of the fact that that’s long been a part of their platform. Unfortunately, abolition is not likely to happen either, because it would (likely) also require unanimous consent of the provinces, and it’s unlikely to get consent from provinces dedicated to reform (Alberta) or those grossly overrepresented by the status quo (the Maritimes and Quebec, although Nova Scotia’s NDP government is officially pro-abolition).

So Trudeau has called both appeals demagoguery. Web definition of a demagogue: “A political leader who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.” Sounds like a fair description of this situation.

Trudeau seemed mostly critical of the fact that both reform and abolition processes seemed to be working around the provinces, which must be consulted on decisions like this. While I disagree that the Senate is an effective instrument of regional representation and minority rights, it is a de jure instrument of those rights. To seek to alter or abolish it without due consultation with the people and provinces whose rights are at stake is still an abuse of power. (I have the same problem with people who say that Ontario should just scrap its Catholic education system or put it up to a referendum. The Constitution enshrined those minority rights for a reason, and it should take more thorough debate and consultation – including with other provinces – before they’re stripped away. Yes, I know Newfoundland and Quebec were allowed to unilaterally get rid of religious schools. That was a very, very bad precedent. Surely the Catholic rights in the Constitution aren’t just for Ontarians, but for all Canadians who might settle in Ontario.)

Granted: The NDP isn’t actually trying to legislate abolition, and they’ve made it clear that they’re trying to build up a consensus from the ground. My practical concern with this is that it’s going to take ages to build this consensus, and while we’re doing so other important work will fall off the radar. The Senate just isn’t that big an issue for me. And yet, the NDP is clearly “seeking support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.”

Trudeau’s preferred outcome for the Senate is better appointments – finding more eminent Canadians like Romeo Dallaire, who’s raised Canada’s profile internationally and brings expertise in military affairs and peacekeeping to the Senate.

Still I agree that Trudeau’s musings on the subject came across as a bit tone-deaf to the discussion currently going on in Canada. Moreover, despite what he says, the current situation is not to “our” advantage whether he meant Canadians or just Quebeckers – the 24 Senators from Quebec don’t give the province any real effective voice in decision-making. If anything, they’re a smokescreen. (I can just about see how this quote could be taken out of context from his saying that electing Senators would be stupid because that formula would put Quebec at a huge advantage, but even if that were the case, it still would sound off.)

I don’t have a problem with a national politician referring to his local/provincial constituency, or even pandering to them in a harmless way – the way PM Stephen “Firewall” Harper did when campaigning to bring Alberta into the government and when he recently called Calgary the best city in Canada. But real harm is done when the pandering comes at the expense of other national constituencies – just look at the hash Harper’s made of the pipelines file because he refused to consult BC and aboriginal groups on a popular Alberta initiative.

For now, I believe the whole reform/abolish/maintain debate is a major distraction from the ongoing scandals of this government, and from the important business of running this country. Let’s get back to debates about how we’re going to make this country grow, build the economy, and increase the welfare of our citizens, rather than fiddling with the vestigial organs of our government.


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