Serge Joyal was a member of the House of Commons from 1974-1984. He was Secretary
of State of Canada from 1982-1984. He was summoned to the Senate in 1997. He is
editor of “The Senate you thought you knew” to be published by the Canadian
Centre for Public Management in Autumn 2002.
Three years ago, in an article
published in the Canadian Parliamentary Review, I commented on the
general nature of the debate on Senate reform, which seemed to be based
principally on empty slogans and simplistic criticisms. For too many public
commentators, denigration has become a substitute for rigorous analysis. The
tide of this facile approach to public policy discussion, which Pierre Elliott
Trudeau once called “la nouvelle trahison des clercs,” has even swept away some
of those journalists usually recognized as keen and astute observers of the
To find a way out of this dead
end debate, which invariably serves only to engender public cynicism about the
political process and distrust of Parliament, it seemed appropriate to explore
the potential for non-constitutional avenues to Senate reform that could
provide real, immediate and substantial benefit to the institution.
To develop this option
thoroughly, I sought the support of several scholars, as well as a fellow
senator, all of whom have knowledge of the history of our parliamentary system.
I asked them to reconsider the longstanding dogmas on the Senate. The end
product is a 500 page volume containing many challenging ideas and assessments
that completely overturn the familiar and erroneous caricature of the Senate
drawn by so many of our political pundits and commentators. The Canadian Centre
for Public Management has taken the initiative to publish the results of these
revealing observations and conclusions. The book was written without the
benefit of any funding grant but with the generosity of time and knowledge
provided by all the contributors and with the support and the help of a large
group of individuals who joined together to assemble a wealth of information.
Each of the nine contributors
presents aspects of the Senate, its origins, development and operations that
add to our understanding of this institution and how it can be effectively
improved to better serve our parliamentary democracy. Janet Ajzenstat,
Professor of History at McMaster University and co-editor of The Founding
Debate, explains that the Fathers of Confederation were more astute and
creative than is often acknowledged when they devised our bicameral Parliament.
They understood that an Upper Chamber based on the federal principle would
better secure the protection of minority, sectional and regional interests,
within a majoritarian political culture that caters to the most powerful
interests in society.
According to Professor Gil
Rémillard, author of Le fédéralisme canadien and former Attorney General
for Quebec, it was clear from its inception that the Senate would not be a
replica of the House of Lords, despite any similarities. The fundamental
purpose of the Canadian Senate was to serve a federal principle totally unknown
to the House of Lords of the United Kingdom, a body conceived to serve a
unitary state. In fact, the Canadian Senate is sui generis –
uniquely adapted to serve the socio-linguistic and geo-economic diversity of a
territory that soon spanned an entire continent.
In the last thirty years,
twenty-eight proposals to reform the Senate were introduced by federal and
provincial governments, as well as by national political parties. All of them
failed. In reviewing each of them, Dr. Jack Stillborn, senior researcher at the
Library of Parliament, comes to a compelling conclusion: every reform scheme
lacked an adequate conceptual understanding of the institutional nature of
Parliament. These reforms failed because they were developed in isolation from
the system of checks and balances through which Parliament operates. They were
developed without regard for their impact on the proper functioning of both
Houses of Parliament, where the House of Commons is responsible to the
electorate, while the Senate embodies the federal principle and acts as a complement
to the Commons.
To help us understand the
synergy of both Chambers, Professor Ronald Watts, of Queens University, has
written a comparative analysis of upper chambers in other federal systems.
Is the modern Senate different
from what was originally proposed? Professor C.E.S. Franks, of the Institute of
Public Policy at Queen’s University, reviewed the work of the Senate during the
last fifty years, in particular its relationship to the House of Commons. His
findings acknowledge a dilemma that confronts any would-be reformer of the
Senate: the dominance of the Executive over the House of Commons, which has
reduced the elected chamber’s capacity to effectively hold the Government
accountable. In contrast, the Senate has continued to function credibly, though
there is much room for improvement.
This basic conclusion is supported in the analysis
of the legislative work and policy studies accomplished in the Senate.
Professor Paul Thomas, of the University of Manitoba, observes important
differences in the effectiveness of the work performed by each chamber.
Whatever good the Senate
achieves is often overshadowed by the familiar criticisms against the
institution. Yet how many of these criticisms are valid and how many are simply
the expressions of ignorance and bias? Senator Lowell Murray, who has been a
member of the Senate since 1979, goes beyond the clamour of the debate on
Senate reform, drawing on his personal experience to provide an insightful
assessment of those criticisms that require corrective measures.
What can really be done to
adapt the Senate to better serve contemporary needs, short of a formal
constitutional initiative? Professor David Smith, of the University of
Saskatchewan, operates from the premise that a system of government is a coherent
architecture, with each beam playing a supporting role. His analysis of a set
of proposals for the improvement of the role, function and composition of the
Senate is an articulate appraisal of the pivotal role of the House of Commons
and the complementary nature of the Senate.
Finally, the closing chapter
is intended to serve as an open forum for any upcoming initiatives on the
Senate. In it, I present my views on the constitutional principles that
are at the core of the Senate’s mandate and structure. Specifically, the
final chapter assesses the significance of the Senate’s veto power, analyzes
its system of appointment and reviews the nature of the Senate’s independence
in the face of conflicting institutional and party loyalties. Any comprehensive
attempt at parliamentary reform must take these three issues into account.
The book is complemented with
an appendix containing numerous charts that compare and analyze the composition
of both Houses of Parliament.
Our system of government is
founded on humanist principles. Our Constitution embodies a value system.
Our parliamentary institutions are the product of those values, not the
reverse. At its core, Canada’s Constitution is based on the recognition
and valorization of minority and human rights, which are supported by a subtle
system of allocation of power to prevent the dominance of powerful interests at
the expense of under-represented groups. This founding principle is
perhaps even more valid today than it was in 1867.