The first duty of the Senate
Written by Link Byfield   
Tuesday, 24 October 2006
Last week I wrote about the Atlantic region’s self-destructive addiction to federal EI, to illustrate the First Federal Principle of the Calgary Congress: provinces should be fully responsible for their own social programs and development.
A current news story about Canadian senators wasting their time and our money in a fancy Persian Gulf hotel brings up the Second Federal Principle.

In September Alberta Senator Tommy Banks, along with three Senate colleagues and three staff, were marooned for seven days in Dubai, with nowhere to go and no one to see, each paying $500 a night at a five-star hotel overlooking the Persian Gulf.

The senators wanted to go fact-finding in Afghanistan, but were told before they left Canada they would not be allowed in because the situation is too dangerous. But they had their hearts set on the trip, so they went as far as the United Arab Emirates anyway, costing Canadian taxpayers $150,000 for nothing.

It’s stories like this that prompt so many Canadians (about half, according to some polls) to say the Senate should be shut down.

But this is a nonstarter. It would require the unanimous consent of all provincial legislatures plus the House of Commons, which will never happen.

Second, notwithstanding the penchant of Senator Banks and Co. for exotic sights and warm sea breezes, the upper house isn’t expensive. It costs $2.25 a year per Canadian. Recall that in 1990 the Senate forced Brian Mulroney to reduce the GST from 9% to 7%, saving every taxpayer about $500 a year ever since.

Besides, as everyone knows who has seriously examined it, the Senate does useful work improving Commons legislation and examining national issues at far less cost than special government commissions.

But senators don’t do the one thing the Constitution tells them to do -- represent their home provinces in Parliament.
There is something perverse about the way we Canadians govern ourselves federally. We try to make national government effective by making prime ministers powerful.

Our prime ministers now hold unilateral power of appointment and promotion over the entire upper house of Parliament, the entire federal cabinet, all committees of Parliament, the entire Canadian judiciary above the level of magistrate including the Supreme Court and the chief justice, the governor general and all lieutenants-governor, the head of the armed forces, the head of national security, the head of the national police force, the entire senior federal bureaucracy, all directors of the Bank of Canada and the heads of all national crown corporations.

All beholden to one man -- the prime minister.

Yet still we hear otherwise intelligent Canadians fret that if we had a powerful and independent Senate, government could get nothing done.

It depends, surely, on what we want government to do. Most of what Ottawa has done for the past several decades would have been better left undone, or left to the provinces -- pensions, unemployment insurance, health and welfare policy, child care, job creation, and regional and urban infrastructure, to name only the largest and most obvious.

In all of these areas, provinces throw up constitutional roadblocks. But if you think this is somehow wrong, don’t blame the premiers. Blame the Constitution.

The Constitution says that Ottawa is responsible for such things as defence, foreign affairs, fisheries, federal prisons, and treaty Indians. These would have been better handled if Ottawa had been less busy these past four of five decades invading areas of exclusive provincial responsibility.

There are several shared federal/provincial powers which could use a provincial senatorial voice in Parliament. But keeping prime ministers out of exclusive provincial responsibilities is something that only an elected and independent Senate can do.

That is why the Second Federal Principle of the Calgary Congress states, “The primary mandate of an elected Senate should be to represent and protect provincial interests, powers and responsibilities.”

Instead of trying to bluster their way into Afghanistan, senators should do a little fact-finding in the Constitution of Canada.