Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics
What do you do with a useless Senate?
The Andy Thompson fiasco has served as a reminder that Canada's Senate is a national embarassment. For years, no-one has supported the present form of Canada's Upper House except the group of politicians benefitting from it at any given moment. Yet, like the Senate itself, the issue of Senate reform is ever-present, but rarely moves to the forefront of the public's attention. For one thing, no-one can agree on a better system; for another, the barriers to serious Senate reform are imposing (it requires the agreement of every province as well as the federal government).
One popular option, championed by many media commentators and the NDP, is to simply abolish the Senate. This course of action sounds attractive (simple, decisive), but it would be a mistake. In a parliamentary system such as Canada's, where a majority government wields almost complete power, it is important to have a body that can restrain any excesses or abuses of power (just think how Ontario under Harris could have benefitted from a recalcitrant upper house). In addition, the Senate performs - or at least should perform - several other useful functions.
1) It provides a degree of regional balancing (i.e. it is not as dominated by Ontario), which is important in a large, diverse nation such as Canada.
2) It enables a party which wins power while lacking representatives from a particular province to appoint a cabinet minister from that province.
3) It provides a different perspective on national issues. Its members sit for an extended term and can have a longer-term perspective than Members of Parliament.
4) Senators are selected gradually, making the chamber potentially representative of Canadian opinion over the long term, rather than a "snap-shot" of opinion in the manner of the House of Commons.
The best course of action would be to reform the Senate so that it still performs these functions, while gaining more legitimacy. The most potent reform proposal so far has been the "Triple-E" Senate - elected, equal and effective. Championed especially by westerners, this proposal would see every province have 10 Senators. While the proposal sounds attractive, it would in fact result in severe distortions of power. For one thing, it would mean that the Atlantic provinces, with only 5% of Canada's population, would have 40% of the seats in the Senate. Furthermore, Quebec, which already senses it is losing influence in Canada, would never agree to giving up its quarter share of the Senate's seats. Since such a radical reform would require the consent of all of the provinces - and it is not conceivable that Quebec or even Ontario would agree - it is basically impossible. As long as Senate reform is stuck in Triple-E mode, the Senate will never change.
Yet, Senate reform is not really all that difficult. The basic factors are as follows:
Here follows my own proposal for Senate reform. It is simple and do-able, and yet it would make the Senate the useful institution is should be.
- The Senate must be legitimate (i.e. elected by the people), but it should not be able to claim greater legitimacy than the House of Commons, since such a situation could result in chaos.
- The Senate should continue to perform all of the funtions listed above: it should be regionally representative; it should be chosen in a gradual manner that is distinct from the House of Commons; Senators should sit for a long period of time to provide a different perspective.
- The Senate should have powers, but not as much power as the Commons. In fact, its current set of powers is appropriate. If it were legitimized, it would exercise them more often.
- Any proposal for Senate reform should be easy to implement, and not be so radically different from the present set-up that it causes serious objections from any province.
- The present Senators should be replaced by elected Senators as they retire. They should not be encouraged to retire early, because it is desirable for the Senate to be replaced gradually, over the course of years, so that the Senate represents Canadian opinion as it evolves, not as it was on one particular election day.
- If there were an election just for a Senate seat, no-one would bother voting. To address this problem, Senators should remain sitting after their terms expire until the next provincial election in their province, or the next federal election, when their replacement would be voted in (so, there would probably be one or two senators replaced in each province in each election).
- The provinces would determine how the Senators were chosen (constituencies or whole province elections; proportional representation or first-past-the-post; etc).
The above proposal in itself would already be a vast improvement in the Senate, and it would be easy to implement (probably not even requiring a constitutional amendment). But there are further options which would improve the Senate even more:
- Restrict Senatorial terms to 10 years (which would effectively be 10-14 years since they would remain until the election that followed the end of their term). Possibly, Senators could be restricted to only one term.
- Persuade Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, who have 10 Senators each, to transfer four each to Alberta and British Columbia. The resulting Senate, while not perfect, would be much more balanced. The small provinces with about 1 million population would each have 6 seats; the middling provinces (3-4 million) would have 10; and the largest provinces (7.5 million or more) would have 24.
- Allow the Prime Minister to appoint 4 special Senators for only his term in office. This proposal would enable the Senate to continue one of its current functions: to enable the PM to appoint cabinet ministers from provinces in which s/he does not have enough seats, and to appoint specialists or particularly trusted advisers to perform a specific function in Cabinet. It would also mean that a new party such as Reform (which did not have many seats in the Senate) would be able to make sure it was sufficiently represented in the upper chamber if it formed the government. These Senators would be automatically dismissed when an election was held or the PM resigned. They could also be subject to further restrictions, e.g., they would all have to be from different provinces; or even, they might not have an actual vote in the Senate.
- Designate four Senate seats for aboriginals. All status Indians and Inuit would be eligible voters. Possibly, they would as a result not get a vote in the provincial Senate seats, to avoid their having two votes, although such a provision isn't really necessary.
These proposals are, for the most part, fairly simple, and yet they would transform the Senate from a national embarassment into a useful part of Canada's democracy.
April 17, 1998
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