One of my favourite days of the year is Canada Day. For an elected official it provides a unique opportunity to engage with many citizens from many corners of Okanagan-Coquihalla and hear about the many things most loved about our country and also to receive questions and concerns. One question that I heard from many citizens this year is “Why don’t we abolish the Senate?”. It is an excellent question.
The short answer to this question is in large part because the Senate is part of our Constitution and a constitution, by its design, is inherently difficult to change. In fact one well respected constitutional law professor recently observed that Canada’s constitution may be one of the most challenging to amend in the world. Fortunately, one of the roles of our Supreme Court is to respond to questions of law or fact concerning the interpretation of our Constitution. In February of 2013 our Government posed a number of questions to the Supreme Court including how the Senate might be lawfully reformed or abolished. In 2014 the Supreme Court responded to these questions.
How did the Supreme Court rule? In essence the Senate cannot be reformed or abolished without unanimous support by both chambers of Parliament, as well as all Provincial and Territorial Legislative Assemblies giving their consent to do so. This is obviously a much higher threshold than the general amendment formula sometimes referred in constitutional circles as 7/50- requiring at least the approval of seven Provinces representing at least half of the Canadian population. Unanimous support may seem to some to be an achievable outcome, more so here in Western Canada where the governments of Manitoba and Saskatchewan have recently stated support for Senate abolishment and it is likely the new Alberta government may take a similar position. The BC Government has also indicated it is open to exploring all options. However further east Quebec has firmly opposed Senate abolition as have some of the Maritime Provinces including PEI and Nova Scotia. This is not surprising given that east of Quebec there are a total of 30 Senators compared to 24 Senators for all of Western Canada.
The challenge in abolishing the Senate is that it will require a full Canadian constitutional debate involving Parliament and all of the Provinces and Territories that will also run the risk of being divisive as it would pit different regions of the country against each other. This would also come at a time where Canada has many other important priorities that cannot be ignored. Closing the gap that exists in many first nations communities, continuing to build infrastructure, supporting jobs and our local economies are a few topics that come to mind of national importance. My intent is by no means to defend the Senate but rather to provide context as to some of the constitutional challenges that exist with respect to abolition or reform.
While on the topic of the Senate last week the Red Chamber (as it is sometimes referred to) was in session to debate and pass a number of Bills that have now received Royal Assent. However as mentioned in my May 13th MP report a number of Bills between the House of Commons and the Senate were not passed. One of these bills was C-518 from my Conservative colleague MP John Williamson. Bill C-518 proposed a mechanism that Members of Parliament and Senators convicted of serious crimes would no longer be entitled to collect a generous taxpayer provided Parliamentary pension and related benefits. This bill was supported by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and all local citizens that I heard from. This was a bill I voted for and spoke in support of and was disappointed it did not pass in this 41st Parliament. As the House is now adjourned I encourage citizens to contact me via email at email@example.com or call toll-free at 1-800-665-8711.
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Dan Albas is the Member of Parliament for the riding of Central Okanagan-Similkameen-Nicola.