Andrew Coyne: Our unelected Senate has no business rewriting federal budgets

Senators routinely substitute their own judgment for that of the Commons, without having to get themselves elected beforehand or to answer to voters afterward


At time of writing, Bill C-44, legislation enacting the federal budget, had yet to come to a vote in the House of Commons. Its passage was nevertheless assured: a formality, in fact, for any government with a majority.

On the other hand the bill is reported to be in some jeopardy in the Senate, where senators are threatening to rewrite it, specifically to split off the controversial infrastructure bank for separate consideration.

This has things exactly backwards. It is the elected representatives of the people in the House of Commons to whom the government is supposed to be answerable. It is they who should be proposing amendments, and it is their support the government should have to court.

The Senate, by contrast, is elected by no one, accountable to no one; as such it has no business amending or defeating anything, let alone a budget bill. Yet that, incredibly, is where we are now. Should the Senate amend it, and should the government reject its amendments, it is conceivable the government could be without a budget.

That’s not likely to happen, of course. In all probability one side or the other will cave. Yet it cannot be said with any certainty that it will be the Senate that does so. In previous such confrontations, as for example over last year’s budget, it has been the government that backed down. In other words, legislation passed by the elected House of Commons is being effectively rewritten by the unelected Senate. That is the true measure of how crazy the situation has become.

This is hardly an isolated event, after all: bill after bill in this Parliament, though passed by the Commons, has been sent back by the Senate for redrafting. The National Post’s Marie-Danielle Smith reports that, in the year ending May 31, fully 20 per cent of legislation — one bill in five — was amended by the Senate on the way to becoming law. And those are just the bills where the Commons submitted to the Senate’s tutelage. In how many more cases did the Senate demand changes, even if the bill was later passed intact?

With each week it becomes clearer what a disaster the Liberal government’s “reform” of the Senate has been. Once, it would have been rare — though not rare enough — for the Senate to behave with such insolence, for the very good reason that senators have no democratic mandate to do any such thing. Yes, they have that power, on paper — almost the same powers as the Commons, in fact — but they are not expected to use it. Or rather, they are expected not to use it.

That, you’ll recall, was the reason the Supreme Court gave for rejecting the last government’s attempt at Senate reform: why, if Senators were elected, even indirectly, they might start to substitute their own judgment for that of the Commons! Whereas they do so now, routinely, without the inconvenience of having either to get themselves elected beforehand or to answer to voters afterward. Cabinet ministers have taken to telephoning senators to plead for their votes, in a way they would never think of doing with mere MPs.

And why not: thanks to Justin Trudeau’s new “independent, merit-based” appointment process, senators have something better than a democratic mandate — they have the mandate of virtue. I know it is not only the new appointees, or the “independent” senators, who have been taking advantage of this: Conservative senators have been exploiting the same opening. But old-school hack or new-school activist, it’s all equally illegitimate. That is, if living in a democracy is important to you.

Posted on: June 12, 2017 by Andrew Coyne
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