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Thoughts on Reforming Canada's Senate
12/01/2003
James Bow has written a trio of articles about the senate and its reform. He reminds us that the senate is currently an underused element in our government. Although its role is meant to be a chamber of sober second thought, it rarely acts as such because of its lack of mandate. Today, an active senate would not be well-received because it is not elected. James' point is that it is possible to reform the senate in order to restore it to its original role, so that it can act as a counter-measure to the absolute power of the Prime Minister's Office. He suggests that any sort of elected senate would be helpful, and an "equal" senate (i.e., equal number of representatives from each province) could be better. I think many Canadians would like to see some sort of counter-balance to the absolute power of parliament. Whether it has been Trudeau, Mulroney, or Chretien, different groups within the country have, at times, felt very frustrated when unpopular measures were being pushed through. An elected senate could serve this purpose, especially with a few other changes, which I'll discuss further below. The principle of a counter-balancing house would only work if the second house is somehow different from the first. Obviously, if we elected two houses of parliament on the same day, in the same way, they would probably produce similar results and the leading party could coordinate across the two. The only advantage to the second house (which wouldn't even necessarily happen) is a different form of party discipline and more free voting. How can we have a second house that represents Canadians in a different way? Here are some ideas:
  • Equal geographical representation
  • Elections at different times, for different terms (longer or shorter)
  • Proportional representation
  • Run-off elections to produce majority-supported senators
  • If possible, unaffiliated senators (not tied to political parties)
  • To decide on the best options, we need to consider both the problems we are trying to solve, but also the political problems we would be creating with any choice. For example, the proposal of "equal geographical representaion" (by province) necessarily shifts some political power from populous provinces to those less populous. This is not a zero-sum game, so there is quite a real possibility that those that would lose power might object. Ontario, under certain leadership, might (like James) be willing to make the sacrifice. It is much harder to imagine Quebec doing the same thing. Elections at different times, for different terms, seems like an idea that would be helpful in addressing concentration of power in the PMO. For example, if senators have 8 year terms, and half of them are elected every four years, then we would likely have a senate with a different profile that the house of parliament. This could work out well when the prime minister is making a mistake. It could also be a problem when the prime minister is advocating a good policy that the public supports, but is blocked by old senators elected 8 years ago. Such reforms are a tricky question. We are tinkering with the balance of our system, but we need to make sure we very clearly understand the specific problems we are trying to fix, and that we very clearly understand the results that our changes would produce. Some simpler (yet significant) improvements for Canada today would include credible opposition parties, more freedom and more of a voice for the individuals we elect, and more chance for the diversity of alternative voices (i.e., parties) to make a contribution.
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