The Role of a Senate, Democracy, and “Filtration”

This is a response to a column in the National Post, June 9th., about democracy and the Senate of Canada. But the underlying argument could as well apply to the proper role of a Senate, as originally conceived, in any democracy.

The Post did not print it.


June 10, 2016

Letters Editor, The National Post

Andrew Coyne complains that the Canadian system is “something less than a democracy” because our Senators “can overrule the elected representatives of millions of citizens” (“Senators should recall their place,” June 9th).

But he is certainly aware that Canada’s Constitution – even more so than the American one of the century prior – was designed by our Founding Fathers to ensure that Canada would always be “something less than a democracy.” They considered this to be the saving grace of the Constitution they so elegantly designed for us.

That is because the Founders of both nations, notwithstanding the considerable differences between them, had in common a justifiable fear of what Jefferson called “elective despotism.” Accordingly, the operative word in those days was “filtration”: there must be some permanent procedural means to filter and refine the democratic will of the people, thus to block elective despotism. There would be three levels of filtration.

First, as to the laws: The people should never be allowed to vote on the laws directly, because most are too busy living to grasp the complex underlying issues and principles at hand. Instead, they should only be allowed to vote for their political representatives, whose job it would be to filter and refine the opinion of the public before making the laws.

Second, as to the House of Commons: Because the will of the People, even when already filtered and expressed in law by representatives, is subject to emotional and partisan excess, and hence to the bullying of minorities, it must be further filtered by a body permanently beyond the democratic will of the people. That is the purpose of the “sober second thought” of an unelected Senate. Our Senate has never failed us because of this ideal. It has only failed us because our standard of high character is so low we have placed some failures in it – people whose behaviour should not tarnish the noble purpose of the institution itself, which is to protect us from elective despotism.

Third, as to the regions of Canada: The will of the Senate itself must be still further filtered by a constitutionally-fixed balancing of regional powers designed to prevent a democratic crushing of the smaller regions by the larger.

In Canada, what Mr. Coyne calls “the principle that must be upheld before all others,” has never been democracy, as he insists, or liberty, but rather, a constitutional liberty that protects us against the unconstrained follies of democracy

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