By Balwant Sanghera
VANCOUVER: The latest developments with respect to Canada’s Senate indicate that this relic of the past should be put to rest. The events relating to Senator Pat Brazeau and the irregularities in the out of town housing claims by some senators have cast a shadow on this chamber of sleepy second thought.
A number of attempts to reform the senate in the past have failed miserably. Currently, the Harper government seems to be quite sincere in reforming the senate. However, its efforts to reform it don’t seem to go anywhere. Regardless, the senate, in its current form, seems to have outlived its usefulness. It is a waste of tax dollars.
Historically, in 1867, the year in which Canada came into existence as a country, the fathers of the confederation created the senate as a chamber of second sober thought to the elected House of Commons. It was modeled along the British House of Lords. The House of Lords had its own problems. Consequently, the British have made substantial changes to the House of Lords during the past few years. That should serve as an example for Canadians. However, here in Canada, we seem to be totally helpless in reforming this outdated model. Take for example the disparity in its representation.
The Senate has 105 seats. Each of Canada’s four regions – Quebec, Ontario,Atlantic Canada and the West – get 24 seats each. The remaining nine seats go to New Foundland (six) and the three union territories – Yukon, N.W.T. ,Nunavut (one each). In 1867, this allocation of seats was relevant. The four major partners at that time – Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia – which came togather to give birth to this nation, were fully justified in getting what they wanted. However, the West was nowhere to be seen as all of the four western provinces joined the confederation later on. Now, the times have changed.
Canada’s four western provinces – B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba – have become not only the fastest growing but also resource rich and powerful provinces. Yet each of them still has only six senate seats. Compare that to tiny P.E.I. which has a population of less than 300, 000 but has four senate seats whereas British Columbia with a population of more than 4.5 million has only six members in the Senate. This is gross inequality.
Any attempts to reform the Senate in a satisfactory manner will require constitutional amendment. This is like opening a Pandora’s Box. None of the Central or Atlantic provinces may be willing to give up what they have. This is likely to create a stalemate. To have the senators elected by the provinces and then appointed by the prime minister has some merit. Also, setting a time limit of eight or nine years for the senators makes sense. However, such measures may not be the lasting solution. To simply abolish the Senate and then come up with something better acceptable to Canadians seems to be the only viable and long term solution. However, to accomplish that appears to be a formidable challenge.
Canadians spend more than $92 million annually to keep the Senate going. Each of the senators gets an annual salary of $132,300 plus perks and privileges .No doubt, there are some very hard working and conscientious members of this chamber who take their responsibility seriously. They are an exception.
On the whole, our Senate has become a repository of old, tired and failed politicians and party loyalists. For some, it is a plum job with little to do. Canadians deserve better than that. They need a balanced, elected, equal and effective chamber of second sober thought. It is overdue for a major overhaul or complete abolishment.
(Based in Richmond, BC, Order-of-British Columbia Balwant Sanghera is one of the foremost activists in the Indo-Canadian community)