The recent heated debate about the Senate has brought this illustrious institution into the light as never before – unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. So much so, in fact, that cries for its abolition have been heard across the country.
A quote comes to mind when I think about all the fuss around the Senate and its members: “Whether people speak well or ill of me is no matter, as long as they speak about me.” Perfect for the Senate. Even if the attention focused on the ill-fated chamber has done nothing to improve its reputation, there still may exist a silver lining. As never before, Canadians have taken the time to learn about the role of the Senate and its senators.
True, many who have learned now want to see the Senate abolished, pure and simple – around fifty percent of Canadians according to a recent Angus Reid poll. However, forty three per cent of people who answered said that they would be ready to give the Senate a second chance if it were reformed.
In fact, this may be an ideal moment to either encourage the abolition of the Senate or to actually deliver on long-promised reforms. In the middle of the political tempest that has blown up around the Senate, the Supreme Court of Canada is presently hearing the government’s arguments in matters of Senate reforms.
Who knows what the Court will have to say, but let’s concede that there are some Senate-related constitutional requirements ready for an upgrade. After all, some of our society’s building-blocks date back to 1867. Take, for example, the requirement to hold at least $4000 in property value in order to become a senator. Quite a sum back in 1867, but hardly the case today. In those days the Senate was for the elite and this requirement was included to keep it that way. It let the well-to-do keep an eye on the other side of Parliament, namely the House of Commons.
So can we really oppose the Harper government’s desire to abolish this constitutional clause? The only time this requirement hindered a nomination was in 1997, when Jean Chretien supported the nomination of Sister Peggy Butts to the Senate. Sister Peggy Butts, a catholic nun, had taken a vow a poverty. She, obviously, didn’t hold any property. Only after her order ceded her a piece of land was she able to take her seat.
The senatorial selection process should also be modified and raised to modern democratic standards. We can only hope that the recent Senate fracas will bring forth an inquiry from Canadians who will have now taken the time to learn about its role and workings.
I, for one, do not wish to see the Senate abolished but I do believe it is high time for reform. After all, the last time any major changes were made, aside from the senator count being reviewed every so often, was in 1965, when the mandatory retirement age was put at 75.
Translation Monique Kroeger