by Chantal Hébert
In the end the Senate battle over medically assisted suicide ended not with a bang but with a whimper.
On Friday, the upper house reluctantly deferred to the will of the House of Commons on the issue of medically assisted death by a margin of 44 to 28. The result was not even close.
Canada’s MPs had had a number of opportunities to adopt a law along the less restrictive lines a majority of senators had suggested. They repeatedly declined to do so – each time a bit more forcefully than the last.
In the circumstances, pursuing a rear-guard battle against Bill C-14 would have been a self-defeating act on the part of an institution that is still very much on probation in public opinion. It is hard to spend political capital that one does not have, especially in the face of a new government that is flush with it.
The legislative discussion over Bill C-14 is over but the debate over the role of a more independent Senate in the larger parliamentary scheme of things has only just begun. It is already eliciting some diametrically opposed views as to the way forward.
At one extreme, there are those who would invest a more independent upper house with the mission of perfecting the work of their elected colleagues. In their book, a decrease in partisan attachment increases the moral authority of the senate, to the point that it should use the powers vested in it by the Constitution to the fullest – even when it means going against the will of the House of Commons.
But power is intoxicating. Its fumes are addictive. Almost every governing party eventually succumbs to the delusion of believing itself infallible and invincible. The cure usually involves a voter-imposed spell in opposition rehab.
If MPs, even as they are regularly reminded of their political mortality by public opinion polls and a ticking election clock, still manage to lose touch with the electorate, what of appointed senators who don’t even need fear being banished from the artificial paradise of Parliament for the rest of their working lives?
At the other extreme, there are those who feel that a still unelected but more independent Senate is ultimately even less accountable than its previous partisan version. No particular party is responsible for its actions. They argue such a Senate should be content to play the role of if not silent at least always compliant partner to the elected majority in the Commons.
Except that under the current electoral system, a majority government does not de facto speak for a majority of voters, it just speaks for more of them than any other of its opposition rivals.
The Senate is not the only parliamentary institution vested with powers that exceed its democratic legitimacy. On that score, the latitude of the upper house does not come to the shoulder of that enjoyed by a prime minister in command of a majority government.
One of the few checks on the prime ministerial power to impose his or her will on the Commons is the capacity of the Senate to stand guard against legislative abuses.
In fact, some of the same thinkers who promote a rubber-stamping Senate are among the first to lament the fact that the majority of most governments elected under the first-past-the-post regime is really the product of a systemic distortion of the will of the electorate. Faced with unilateral Liberal action to, say, change the voting system, would they still expect an independent Senate to defer to the government?
A word in closing: Like their colleagues in the Commons, the senators were free to vote as their conscience dictated. Most Liberal MPs stuck with the government. All New Democrats opposed the bill. The Conservative breakdown was more intriguing.
On Thursday, most Conservative MPs joined the Liberals to vote against the less restrictive assisted-death criteria that a majority of their colleagues in the Senate had supported. Having had a taste of independence, the latter are almost certainly going to crave more.
Sooner rather than later, the next Conservative leader will have to determine whether to jump on the senatorial independence bandwagon or risk being left behind by the Conservatives in the upper house, for this train – for better or for worse – has left the station.
Chantal Hébert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services