In October 2007, a motion introduced in the Senate called for a national
referendum in which Canadians would be asked whether the Senate should
be abolished. The following extracts are taken from speeches for and against
Senator Hugh Segal (October 30, 2007): Let me offer one quotation from
Senator Joyals Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew,
in support of the proposition:
The Senate is likely the least admired and least well known of our national
political institutions. Its work attracts neither the interest of the media,
the respect of elected politicians, the sympathy of the public, nor even
the curiosity of academia. How paradoxical that very few Canadians have
an understanding of the history, role, and operations of the Senate, and
yet everyone seems to have an opinion on the institution.
I agree with my friends comments regarding the outside view of the Senate,
and I believe that this motion, if successful, will go a long way in not
only educating the public about our role here but also towards legitimizing
an institution that has often come under attack without any clear understanding
of its function or merits.
Yes, it could also result in its abolition but, after years of negotiating,
attempts at reforming and seemingly endless discussions, perhaps the
time has come to allow the electorate to weigh in and settle the question
politicians of all affiliations have been unable to answer since Confederation
In a democracy, specifically in the key working elements of its responsible
government, respect must be tied in some way to legitimacy. While questioning
legitimacy of long established democratic institutions is usually the
tactic of those seeking a more radical reform, the passage of time does
not, in and of itself, confer de facto legitimacy, and seems a particularly
undemocratic way of moving forward. The purpose of my motion regarding
a referendum question put to the Canadian people is to focus squarely on
the legitimacy issue.
There are many differences between Canada, Iraq and Afghanistan, too numerous
to mention. One difference, however, relating to the basic law under which
each seeks to govern itself is that those who negotiated the content of
the respective basic laws in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last decade
saw those constitutions put to the test in a popular referendum in which
there was a high voter turnout. A referendum never happened in the Canada
of the 1860s, which is not surprising. There was no universal suffrage
at that time. There was not even a secret ballot. It is not surprising
it did not happen then.
The British North America Act was never sanctioned by a popular referendum
in which Canadians had the chance to legitimize the work of the Fathers
Today, after 39 federal elections and approximately 300 provincial and
territorial elections since 1867, surely we can say that the elected assemblies
that make our laws have been legitimized by millions of voters on numerous
occasions. What is more, Canadians voted against constitutional change
in the 1992 referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. We can therefore conclude
that there has been some public input, which strengthens the legitimacy
argument. But it would be going too far to include the unelected Senate
in this circle of legitimacy.
Except in Alberta, which elected Stan Waters in the 1980s and Senator Bert
Brown, Canadians have never voted in any way to legitimize an unelected
upper house, which has potentially huge legislative powers.
The present government of Canada deserves some credit for attempting to
address this legitimacy question through proposals in the House to consult
the public on Senate vacancies before appointments are made, and to shorten
terms, an effort launched in this place in a previous session. In this
regard, Prime Minister Harper follows in a long and noble line of federal
leaders who have attempted Senate reform. Since 1867, Liberals and Conservatives,
there have been 17 proposals at Senate reform and not one has succeeded.
Surely, in a democracy, the more fundamental question is: Should the Senate
exist at all? Is a second chamber, as presently constructed, necessary
for the democratic governance of a modern Canada? Many democracies operate
with only one chamber. While existing governments, legislators, public
servants and constitutional scholars should have a say, as should every
member of this place, is it not only appropriate that those people are
consulted? Surely the people in an open and single question referendum
also have the right to participate in this decision.
To make fundamental changes to our system of government, the Crown, Parliament,
or the regular election cycle, the current amendment formula requires the
consent of all provincial legislatures and the Parliament of Canada. It
must be unanimous.
Such a referendum would allow us to avoid another cycle of reform contortions
until we knew whether Canadians actually wanted the Senate itself to continue
in any way.
In the design of any referendum on the abolition or maintenance of the
Senate, it would be of immense value if Ottawa and the provinces would
simply agree that Ottawa would sign onto an amendment if 50-per-cent-plus-one
majority of Canadians voted for abolition. Any premier would sign on for
an amendment if 50-per-cent-plus-one majority of the people in his or her
province voted for abolition as well.
The late-night, never-ending First Ministers conferences where deals might
be struck or broken, and constitutional amendments might be lost or won,
would be unnecessary. Such a 50-per-cent-plus-one agreement would simply
be a formula that embraces the rather dramatic notion that governments
work for the people, even on issues of constitutional legitimacy, or perhaps,
especially on these issues, as opposed to the other way around.
As a member of the Senate, I share the view of many that the Senate, as
an institution, and many who have served within it, have done outstanding
work for their country. Surely, without the legitimacy of a public and
democratic expression relative to the Senates existence itself, this work
is, while interesting and even compelling, a little bit beside the point.
There are wonderful, hard-working economists and social policy advisers
who laboured for years in the Kremlin. Mother Russia was their only concern.
They did good work, they were elected by no one in particular and they
had no democratic legitimacy. Doing good work does not constitute, de facto,
The Senates existence via constitutional agreement in the 1860s has forced
prime ministers to fill it. Many of those people who have been appointed
from partisan or other careers have served with distinction, but those
historical facts do not equal legitimacy. They reflect constitutional reality
not particularly impacted by any legitimacy except the passage of time,
surely a weak proxy for democratic legitimacy conveyed by the people through
exercising of their democratic franchise.
Many of those who insist that we still need a Senate and I am one of
them and even those who claim that an appointed Senate is better than
an elected Senate, say that senators have as much legitimacy as judges,
who are also appointed by the duly elected government. I submit that there
is a huge difference. Judges are appointed to interpret the laws on a case-by-case
basis. Senators get to change the law, make law and refine or reject laws
sent to it by an elected House of Commons.
The illegitimacy of that status quo emerges from two realities, of which
the government to date has tried to address only one. Canadians have no
say in who sits in the Senate, and Canadians have never had a say as to
whether we need a Senate.
In the most recent U.K. government proposal on reform of the Lords, a review
of second chambers across the democratic world concluded that Canadas
Senate was the most theoretically powerful of any in the entire world.
Surely, it is the spirit of constitutional coherence and stability that
we face the issue of legitimacy straight up. Canadians surely have the
right to answer a simple question directly. A decent referendum period
with a clear question and ample time for information, discussion and debate
would facilitate such a response.
We do not need to recreate the wheel. In 1992, the Conservative government
presented to Parliament, and Parliament passed, the Referendum Act, which
authorizes the Governor-in-Council, in the public interest, to obtain by
means of a referendum the opinion of electors on any question relating
to the Constitution of Canada. With little fuss, it could be presented
to Parliament by the present administration facilitating a referendum on
the abolition of the Senate. Perhaps, circumstances willing, this work
can be done before the next election.
A simple question do you want to maintain or abolish Canadas second
chamber of Parliament could be put. The abolitionists can make their
case over a period of some weeks. Those in favour of a second chamber,
of which I would be one, reformed or otherwise, could make their case as
well. There would be regional, demographic and other subsections to the
debate, but we would have faced, as a country, the essence of the legitimacy
question. For those colleagues across the way and on my own side who have
talked about the wording of the question, let us follow the mechanics.
If this motion were to pass, and the request went to the Governor-in-Council,
the government would have decide to bring in the referendum legislation
in which, if they used the 1992 model, Parliament would decide on the wording
of the question. Thus, for colleagues on both sides who might be concerned
about the wording of the question some have asked me why the question
should not be abolition or reform there would be ample time for that
If Canadians voted to abolish in sufficient number and with a majority,
nationally and in each province, then our leaders would have clear direction
to act. If they did not vote thus, then the Senate would have the basic
legitimacy required to justify the effort. If the option of abolition were
presented, and Canadians were to choose not to take it in sufficient number
in a way that obviates and makes easy the amendment, then that would constitute
a public consultation and the public would have spoken on the Senate of
Serving senators who support this proposal, and admittedly there might
not be many, might be asked: How can you serve in a Senate that you feel
is illegitimate? I do not feel that the Senate is illegitimate but we have
a chance to seek legitimacy and have the question put to the public of
Canada in an open referendum. As to why those of us who might favour that
referendum are still enthusiastic about serving in this place, I, and others,
would say: When asked by a prime minister, duly elected under our system
to take on a task for the country, one would have to be pretty self-important
to say, no. When one takes an oath of service and signs it, one has a duty
to serve the institution as it exists to ones best ability.
Surely, that obligation does not imply disengagement from the democratic
imperative of legitimacy and democratic participation in the architecture
of legitimacy. The motion I propose will afford parliamentarians a broad
opportunity to reflect on the issue and contribute their own perspectives.
Should a similar motion be introduced in the House, the debate would be
enjoined more broadly still. While I would vote against abolition for reasons
that relate to both the need for a chamber that reflects regional and provincial
interest and some careful assessment of quickly and often badly drafted
federal laws too often passed by the House too quickly, my vote is but
one amongst our fellow citizens. My opposition to abolition does not weaken
in any way my deeply held belief that Canadians should decide something
they have never been allowed to decide before.
One of the core premises of the development of responsible government in
Canada is the process of evolution. To be relevant and engaged, all aspects
of our democratic institutions must be open to reflection, public scrutiny
and public sanction. The Canadian Senate, venerable, thoughtful, constructive
and often nonpartisan as it may be, cannot be outside the circle of democratic
Senator Bert Brown (November 13, 2007): I will speak against this motion
to abolish the Senate if a majority of Canadians, in a referendum, wish
to do so.
I am not opposed because it took 24 years of work to get here and my tenure
in this chamber has so far been less than two weeks. Rather my opposition
takes two forms. The last time I witnessed a referendum in Canada, it was
not a binding referendum. It is likely not possible for a government to
enact a binding referendum; it would be like asking victims to supply the
rope for their own hanging.
Over the past generation, many polls have been conducted on whether Canadians
want their senators elected. The first polls gave a simple majority to
the yes side. Only months ago, the polls were 79 per cent for the yes
side. Brad Wall brought the province of Saskatchewan to the yes side
the morning of November 8 with his recommendation to elect senators to
future vacancies. That is my first point against the motion.
Second, the most compelling reason for this chamber to continue to exist
even in its present state is the real fear of future prime ministers with
a real majority in the House of Commons : There are no constitutional limitations
on the powers of a prime minister with a majority in that other place.
While Canadians appear to be increasingly pleased with the current government
and its prime minister, Senate reform, when it takes place, is for the
next century or two. It is not for the tenure of any current government.
Since World War II, we have witnessed governments of numerous parties that
were a direct cause of a debt of $680 billion accumulated over a generation.
This country will have paid $2.78 trillion by the time that debt is retired.
That is after 25 years at 5 per cent interest and payments of $5 billion
over those years.
At the end of the debt and deficit increases in 1993, this country was
less than 18 months from having the International Monetary Fund tell us
what we could and could not do with our federal taxes.
I believe that the function a future senator can play is as an effective
counterbalance to the other place. A counterbalance with a legitimate vote
to protect our country against future internal threats more than justifies
the Senates cost. For that reason I oppose the abolition of this chamber
by referendum or any other means.
I want to speak about loyalty and party discipline. I was honoured to place
a wreath at the regimental war museum in Calgary November 11 on behalf
of the Government of Canada. I believe the cause of World War II to be
blind loyalty to, first, the National Socialist German Workers Party,
also known as the Nazi Party of Germany; second, the same blind loyalty
to the National Fascist Party of Italy; and, finally, a Japanese emperor
who believed he was a god. His subjects believed him and gave them their
blind loyalty and trust. As a result of those blind loyalties to parties
and to a religion, we, the human race, killed 50 million people.
In 1993, I was commissioned by the Canada West Foundation to interview
former and current MLAs across Canada and former and current MPs, and my
conclusions were published in the 1993-94 summer edition of the Canadian
Parliamentary Review. Since then, I have not changed my belief that unquestioning
blind loyalty to any philosophy or leader is the most dangerous thing that
can happen in a democracy.
I believe that this chambers best service to this country will occur when
elected senators truly represent the wishes of the people of their home
provinces, not the political philosophy of past prime ministers. Blind,
unquestioning allegiance in politics or religion may again move us to problems
within Canada and abroad.
Senator Lowell Murray (November 28, 2007): If this motion were passed,
it would constitute advice to the government; however, as we all know,
it would not be binding on the government. Even if the government were
to take the advice of the Senate and hold the referendum on abolition,
the referendum result would be non-binding. The government would still
have to institute the process of constitutional amendment with the provinces.
The following questions then arise: Why bother with the motion? Why support
Senator Segals motion? First, abolition is clearly one of the options
being considered by the government. The Leader of the Government in the
House of Commons and Minister for Democratic Reform made that clear several
times in his speech in the House of Commons at second reading of Bill C-19
on November 16, 2007.
Second, two Senate reform proposals sponsored by the government Bill
C-19, on term limits; and Bill C-20, on elections are going nowhere,
and the government knows they are going nowhere. Quite apart from the hurdle
of getting those two bills through two Houses of Parliament in which the
government is in a minority position, at least three provinces have made
their view abundantly clear that one or the other or both of those bills
are ultra vires the competence of the federal Parliament acting alone.
Premier Charest and Premier McGuinty have reiterated their position on
that point, and they have served notice that they would challenge in court
if Parliament were to pass those bills. What does that mean? In the courts
of at least three provinces that I am aware of, New Brunswick, Quebec and
Ontario, the challenges would wend their ways and ultimately come to the
Supreme Court of Canada for final adjudication. If the government were
serious about proceeding with government reform at this time, they could
save a great deal of time, money and trouble by referring Bill C-19 and
Bill C-20 to the Supreme Court of Canada now, which they should do.
The government could follow an alternative, with a constitutional amendment
in mind: The government could draft a succinct model of Senate reform and
ask Canadians, through a referendum, to pronounce on it. If the governments
succinct model of Senate reform were to receive the support of enough voters
in enough provinces, the Prime Minister could walk into a meeting of first
ministers with a very strong hand indeed.
In my opinion, coming up with a succinct model of Senate reform would not
be as complicated as it might appear to be on the surface. The government
has already crunched two of the issues: First, they want an eight-year
term for future senators, which they would probably make renewable in the
case of an elected Senate; and second, it is fair to say that, notwithstanding
this consultative election contained in Bill C-20, Mr. Harpers strong
preference would be for direct election of senators. Those two issues have
been crunched as far as the government is concerned, and its position is
The first of two other elements that they would have to come up with is
representation, for which there is not an infinity of options before the
government. They could come up with some reasonable balance of regional
or provincial representation in the Senate. The second element is the question
of powers. There again, the government would not need to draft a lengthy
blueprint of powers. The main issue the government would have to address
in the form of a referendum question is the relationship of the Senate
to the House of Commons and whether the Senate would have an absolute veto
or a suspensive veto. The main issue is whether the House of Commons would
have primacy at the end of the day. That would lend itself to a succinct
question on a referendum balance.
The government is doing none of those things. I am not embarrassed at all
to express the view that the federal government is ragging the puck on
Senate reform. They are going on ad infinitum and, instead of taking a
direct approach, they are taking an indirect, circuitous and devious approach
that will end at a dead end, which they well know.
One option would be for one of the provinces to concentrate our minds by
passing a proposed constitutional amendment for abolition and then start
the clock ticking. Senator Segals proposed referendum on abolition might
not be anyones first choice, but it would move us off dead centre and
in a straight line. As well, it would get the attention of the country
on the issue in a concrete way.
With all the loose talk that has been heard on Senate reform and the Senate,
it is time to focus on first principles. We need the benefit of a thorough
discussion on whether Canada wants a unicameral or bicameral Parliament.
Does Canada need a Senate? Does Canada need any kind of Senate? Those who
vote for abolition perhaps will have been persuaded by one or more of the
following arguments: First, many other democratic countries have unicameral
Parliaments. I know that most federations have bicameral Parliaments, but
in none of those federations, certainly not in the United States, Australia
or Germany, does the constituent parts the provinces or states have
the constitutional and fiscal powers that our provinces have. A strong
argument can be made that those states need an upper house at the centre
to represent their interests and that ours do not need that.
Second, experience, sadly including fairly recent experience, shows that
party solidarity almost always trumps the regional role in respect of legislative
votes in this place.
Third, many of our provinces had bicameral legislatures and all of them
have abolished their upper houses. In many of those provinces, in particular
the bigger ones, there are still regional and other minority tensions.
However, no one suggests that any of those provinces should recreate their
upper houses as a way of reconciling or resolving those tensions.
Fourth, Canadians are over-governed already. We could save some money by
doing away with the Senate.
Fifth, the many non-governmental organizations, policy advocacy groups,
cultural and linguistic organizations, professional and occupational groups,
and think tanks, all of whom now participate in the policy development
and the legislative process and do so with the active encouragement of
government and political parties, have become much more prominent and influential
in setting the national agenda than the Senate is.
Sixth, our 25 years of experience with the Canadian Charter of Rights and
Freedoms has made the Senates role in protecting minority rights rather
Seventh, the existence at both the federal and provincial levels of various
ombudsmen, human rights commissions, appeal boards, complaints committees
and so forth provides a much better recourse for citizens and a redress
for injustice and the capacity to overturn arbitrary decisions of government.
Eighth, the increasing tendency in the House of Commons to amend bills
there, even under majority governments, and the growing practice of referring
bills to committees in the House of Commons after first reading are overtaking
the Senate as a revising chamber.
Ninth, a second chamber, whether its members are appointed, elected by
proportional representation or on the basis of provincial or regional balance,
contradicts the basic democratic principle of representation by population
and to the extent it does so would be undemocratic.
Tenth, all efforts to achieve a reformed Senate having failed, it is better
to abolish the present body and rebuild it from the beginning.
In a referendum campaign, some will argue that abolition of the Senate
would be preferable to the status quo. That is the position of the government,
as stated several times by Mr. Van Loan. Others will argue that abolition
would be preferable to some of the more exotic models of a reformed Senate,
models that would paralyze the federal government and deadlock the federal
Parliament. That has been my position.
Others, while opposed to the status quo, will also oppose abolition of
the present Senate. Keep it to reform it, they say. Others in favour of
a new Senate argue, as I have suggested, that the only path to reform is
on the ashes of the present Senate, so abolish it and start over. Others
will argue that a second chamber, as a check on the power of the executive
government and of the House of Commons, is so essential that even a body
as imperfect as our present Senate is better than unicameralism.
I am not making myself the advocate of any of these arguments. However,
the people of Canada need to hear them and hear the counter-arguments of
those who hold that Canada needs a bicameral Parliament.
I say there is nothing to fear from trusting to the judgment of the people.
Let us pass Senator Segals motion and give the government and the country
something to think about.
Senator Sharon Carstairs (December 11, 2007): In my view, the most regressive
thing a politician can do is to raise an expectation that is not deliverable.
This is exactly what this motion proposes.
Canadians would be asked to vote on a referendum to abolish the Senate;
but the expectation in the minds of most Canadians would be that if the
majority of Canadians voted to abolish the Senate, then the Senate would
indeed be abolished. However, this would not be the case.
The Senate could not be abolished without a constitutional amendment, and
we all know how difficult such an amendment would be. Therefore, an expectation
that has been set up in the minds of the citizens of this country is dashed,
resulting in even greater disillusionment of the citizenry and further
This motion by Senator Segal goes one step further in the development of
cynicism because the person who proposes the motion does not even believe
in his own motion. He has indicated that he would vote no. For me, this
proposal is the ultimate in cynicism. Therefore, I believe we should vote
a resounding no to this motion.
There is only one solution to Senate reform. That is for the Prime Minister
of this country to show leadership. Leadership on behalf of the Prime Minister
would manifest itself in calling a first ministers meeting of all the premiers
of the provinces and territories to discuss Senate reform because without
their support, a constitutional amendment is not possible.
It is when they have come to an agreement that a referendum should occur.
The people of Canada should be given a proposal on Senate reform and then
given the right to vote it up or down.
I know that the reaction of the honourable senator who has proposed this
motion is that we have tried this approach but it did not work. For the
sake of historical accuracy, that is not true.
Canadians have never been given the option to vote only on Senate reform.
They have had a proposal that included many aspects of constitutional reform
and voters voted against far more than one of the propositions. Yes, some
voted against Senate reform but far more voted against changes to electoral
reform, in particular in British Columbia; others voted for the further
decentralization of the nation, which was certainly my vote; still others
because it did not go far enough; and last but not least, many voted, no,
because they did not like the government of the day, which proposed a massive
change in the way Canada was to be governed.
This chamber has been effective but there is always room for improvement.
I would like the premiers and the Prime Minister to discuss the proposition
of non-renewable terms, and 12 to 13 years is appropriate.
Canadians did not reject Senate reform. They rejected a massive package
of reforms on the way Canada was to be governed. We do not know how they
would have voted had there been a choice only on Senate reform. They deserve
the right to make a choice about this institution and this institution
What are some of the questions that the premiers and the Prime Minister
should discuss? The first should be the distribution of seats. Should we
go to the American model and recognize all provinces as equal and, therefore,
entitled to exactly the same number of seats? Should they re-examine our
present regional representation and question whether the numbers need some
adjustment? I favour the second option.
Clearly, the west suffers a significant disadvantage. I would recognize
British Columbia as a new region and allow their number of seats to grow
gradually to the full 24 seats for their region when the population of
British Columbia equals the population of the region of Quebec. I would
make a further adjustment that would allow the Prairie region to grow to
30 seats under a provision that would state, if a region represented more
than one province, then that region would have 30 seats, thereby equalizing
the seats of the Atlantic and the Prairie regions.
As to the elected nature of the Senate, a debate must begin with a discussion
on how powerful they want the Senate of Canada to be. If senators in Canada
are to be elected in a manner similar to members of the House of Commons,
then the discussion of powers is critical. Do we want a chamber of sober
second thought or do we want a chamber more powerful than the House of
Commons? There are 110 seats in the Province of Ontario the present proposal,
and 24 senators. Which parliamentarians will be more powerful? I suggest,
honourable senators, that the 24 senators, if elected, will be more powerful
than 110 members of Parliament. I favour an indirect election process with
names coming forward from the legislatures of the provinces and territories.
The number of names must reflect the gender and ethnic diversity of the
province and, therefore, the numbers proposed must exceed the number of
vacancies. The names should be vetted through the legislatures and should
require the support of all parties represented in the legislatures. The
Prime Minister would then have the choice to select from these names to
ensure broad representation in this place.
Other issues require debate. Should senators all sit as independent senators
with no caucus loyalty? Should the Speaker of the Senate be elected? Should
the Senate be totally gender balanced? Should the Senate have a special
role to protect linguistic minorities? Should higher votes be required
for legislation that limits minority rights? Should the Senate have quota
numbers with respect to First Nations people? Many other questions probably
should be debated and examined. I have given a few this afternoon.