Democratising Canada’s Senate

The Harper Government is planning legislation this week that would take some of the first steps towards democratising Canada’s Senate. I haven’t seen the full plan yet, but from the highlights reported in the media, it seems to propose allowing each province to choose how it will determine who goes to Senate on their behalf – opening the door for provinces to decide, on an individual basis, whether they want to hold elections for their Senate representatives.

A couple of months ago I wrote a blog entry (which, admittedly, was so long that nobody read it) considering the idea of Australianising Canada’s electoral and legislative systems. I then took it a step further after the election and calculated the allocation of seats if we had used an Australian-style system (and keeping the allocation of provincial Senate seats in our existing constitution), showing that it would lead to a much more proportional system.

Perhaps all this volume (and countless partisan statements on what we should do about the Senate) has led to real debate being lost here. There are numerous proposals for what to do about Canada’s Senate.

But first, a brief reminder of Canada’s political history.

I’m not going to claim to be an expert, but I do know a little about Canada’s formation. Something we Canadians often forget is that we are not a subdivided whole, but a combined group. Our country formed in bits and pieces over the course of 82 years. Yes, 82 years. 1867 is the official date, but at the time only four provinces were in our federation. I don’t count the addition of Nunavut in 1999 as it was simply the redistribution of existing land – Newfoundland’s financial crises in the 1940s led to it being the last province to actually join the federation. Prior to joining confederation, each of the initial provinces was an independent colony of the United Kingdom (or privately-owned land of the Hudson’s Bay Company), which willingly agreed to join together under a commonwealth nation. This is not completely dissimilar (though there are obvious differences) from a federation like the EU – independent nation-states agreeing to give up a bit of, but not all of, their independence (sovereignty would be an inappropriate word here as they were all subject to the British crown) in exchange for being part of something bigger, working together as a group. Over the years, as each province joined, various agreements were formed that ensured that each province would have its place within the federation and that decisions would be made fairly. This is important, because no province would willingly join (or remain in) a federation where it felt bullied, excluded, or disadvantaged for being in it. Just ask Quebec.

Part of these agreements (which, in part, eventually formed our constitutional documents) was the governmental system. The Senate was formed to reflect the fact that we were independent colonies joining forces, and not a giant mashup of one big land mass. The point is often made that Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are massively overrepresented in the Senate – this is in part a result of the fact that they would not have joined in the first place if they felt that joining Ontario and Quebec would lead to other people making decisions for them. Whereas the House of Commons was meant to be a place to represent the people of Canada, the Senate served the role of representing the people of each member-province. Much of this still holds true today as each province chooses to remain in the federation. There is a purpose to our Senate, and its maintenance is important to keeping our country together by honouring those agreements of the past and ensuring no province feels excluded in the present. Whether it’s democratic in its current form is another question.

Do nothing

A number of people are saying that the people can’t be trusted with democracy, so let’s keep everything the same – for them, I have no arguments, as I am a fundamental believer in democracy. The people should be responsible for the branch of government that creates the laws (generally speaking, the legislative branch) and arguments with these people tend to lead to “oh well then I guess we should start electing judges and dogcatchers like the Americans do,” which fails to recognise the importance of the legislative branch in making decisions of national importance which are then interpreted and used by the judiciary and civil service. The laws, in my view, should still be created by the people and their democratically-elected representatives. Any system where unelected persons make the decisions for us is somewhere in the range between tyranny/dictatorship and oligarchy. Claims that the Senate (or Queen/Governor General) could never get away with doing something that opposes the House of Commons (the only body Canada has that in any way, albeit poorly, represents the people by election) not only misses the point that they can but that they have done so in very recent history (see links above for only a couple of examples). The Senate is not democratic, and by virtue of the requirement of the Senate to pass all bills in the same form as the House passes them, our system is not democratic.

Many people who acknowledge this, in turn, jump straight to whatever conclusion they’ve made without any support besides “OMG-the-Senate-is-broken-we-need-to-do-my-thing-because-the-Senate-is-broken” without considering that there are, in fact, many, many, different ways to deal with the Senate and that its brokenness is not an argument in favour of their proposal over another proposal.


The most frequent example of this says the Senate is undemocratic (with which I agree), and/or wasteful (which, in its current form, it is, but if elected it would not be – government isn’t free), and therefore we should abolish it altogether. This is kind of like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, cutting off a limb to cure a hangnail, throwing out the car because the ashtray is full, or shutting down all national postal service because a labour dispute is delaying the mail by, alas, a whole day or two. I’ve made the case above that the Senate is useful in Canada’s federation in order for the provinces to be represented federally.

If we’re going to abolish the Senate, I believe this needs to come along with an abolishment of our federation as it currently exists, in favour of a truly unified independent republic that operates as one nation and is not a collection of smaller ones. We often think that’s what we already have, but it is not. I’m totally willing to entertain this idea – it wouldn’t necessitate eliminating provinces, but would require constitutional reform to make Canada a singular nation and, in turn, the federal government could delegate responsibilities down to regional/local governments (which need not necessarily be the same as the provincial borders that exist today) based on whatever we come up with in a new constitution. That said, I suspect that there would be at least a few provinces that would not agree to form such a union. Any province that has had musings of leaving the federation altogether (amongst them I would count at least Quebec, Alberta, and Newfoundland & Labrador… not to mention the City of Toronto) seems unlikely to support giving up what tiny bit of sovereignty they still have in favour of a single country.


This is the idea I support. While my version of this would involve (similar to Australia’s system) a proportional-representation-by-province system which maintains existing (or newly agreed upon) provincial seat distributions but allocates those seats based on proportion of the votes cast in that province, I’m certainly open to entertaining other and/or similar ideas. I propose that this has a number of advantages. First, it solves the fact that the Senate is unelected and, in turn, undemocratic. Second, it continues to reflect the fact that the provinces are voluntarily remaining in the federation because they are fairly represented at the federal level. Most of the arguments about the Senate include its lack of democratic election (solved by electing people), and the fact that Senators tend to be a drain on resources and don’t actually do anything (solved by requiring them to stand for election periodically – in theory they won’t be re-elected if Canadians truly have a problem with their behaviour). I also proposed in my earlier entry that attending votes in both houses be mandatory, and that any absences require the permission of the Speaker and pairing of votes with an opposing member.

How does it work practically? It forces both houses to work together to come up with bills they can agree on. If one party has a majority in both houses, it’s easy, they just pass whatever they like, assuming they can whip the vote. If there are opposing parties in a majority in each house, or if there are minorities in either house, they all have to work together. It forces governments to balance the needs of the various provinces (in the upper house, the Senate) and of the majority of the people (represented in the lower house, the House of Commons) to come up with bills that can actually pass.

I’ve discussed this with my Australian political-geek friends, in particular with respect to things like budgets which must pass if the government is to remain in power. Practically speaking, this means that the government party putting forward the bills has to work to seek out support, and to compromise where necessary, in order to ensure bills pass. This is usually done even before a bill is introduced (when it comes to bills of confidence like the budget), to ensure passage. Our current system allows parties with a minority of support of Canadians (keeping in mind the Conservatives have a majority of seats in both houses, with only 40% or so of the popular vote) to pass whatever bills they like.

Having to appease both houses also fosters a culture of co-operation – it means that parties in power become used to working together with opposition and minority parties to ensure their bills make it through both houses. This can help in situations of minority governments – the latest Conservative minorities have shown that they are only interested in passing bills their way, even if it means going to an election as a result of refusing to co-operate with the majority of MPs. Forcing them (or whatever government is in power) to co-operate with a Senate that may not be led by the same party as them on a more regular basis encourages the gathering of support for money bills before they’re even introduced.

I dream of a government that co-operates to gather as much support as possible – I hope we can achieve this one day.


9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Charles in Vancouver on 2011/06/23 at 3:13 am

    So just in a quick read-through of the prescribed framework…

    “To be a candidate for election as a Senate nominee in a province or territory that has registered provincial or territorial political parties, a person must be nominated by a registered provincial or territorial political party as the party’s official candidate or be a person who, after the issuance of the election writ, declares himself or herself to be an independent candidate and is nominated to stand for election.”
    So this suggests senators will be registered by *provincial* political parties, meaning we could see a BC Liberal, Wild Rose, Quebec Solidaire or Parti Quebecois senator. Interesting…

    “The ballots used in an election must contain a brief explanatory note stating the maximum number of candidates who can be voted for in order not to make a ballot void.”
    “If more than one person is to be elected, the candidate with the highest number of votes must be declared elected and the candidate with the next highest number of votes must be declared elected, and so on, until the number of candidates to be elected are declared elected.”

    Okay so now we’re starting to get a sense of the prescribed electoral system. Remember how Harper wanted to have STV Senate elections, which would lead to some measure of proportionality? Forget that. The legislation proposes an at-large multiple-vote system like Vancouver city council. If there are three positions to fill, then it’s “first three past the post”.

    So let’s suppose that Ontario needs to elect three senators. The Conservatives, Liberals and NDP will all presumably put forth three candidates. If every voter in the province votes entirely for a partisan “ticket” (they won’t necessarily, but it’s a reasonable first approximation), and 38% vote for the Conservative ticket, 37% for the Liberal ticket, and 25% for the NDP ticket… you know who’s going to the Senate for Ontario? Three Conservatives, for nine years. So much for improving democracy…


    • Interesting. I agree that first-three-past-the-post is pretty stupid. Sadly, it’s still better than “first one to win the favour of the Prime Minister.”


      • Posted by Charles in Vancouver on 2011/06/23 at 3:36 am

        Indeed. It just seems that for such a piecemeal solution within a piecemeal solution, nobody really wins here.

        Also I would highlight “If a province or territory has enacted legislation that is substantially in accordance with the framework set out in the schedule, the Prime Minister, in recommending Senate nominees to the Governor General, must consider names from the most current list of Senate nominees selected for that province or territory.”

        The PM must consider names. So let’s say BC manages to elect 4 senators-in-waiting, 2 BC Liberal and 2 BCNDP. Let’s for argument’s sake say the one with the most votes was BCNDP. Let’s say there is now only one vacancy to fill. The PM will look at that list and “consider names”, but is there anything stopping him from skipping the top one and picking the BCL winner over the NDP?


        • FTR, I’m not endorsing the CPC plan. I’m endorsing democratisation. I don’t believe abolishment is the way to go, nor do I believe the status quo is acceptable.


  2. […] Support for senate reform, not abolishment.  The provinces have to agree on any serious changes in the system, and I don’t agree with abolishing the senate (as previously explained). […]


  3. […] topic of senate reform and democratisation (something I’ve discussed in more wonk-y detail here), the immediate reaction I get from abolitionists is “the senate is wasteful and we should […]


  4. Posted by Louis B on 2017/07/18 at 11:20 pm

    Greetings from Australia. An interesting read, I just completed a Research Proposal on reforming our Senate and used the argument of unicameralism vs the Canadian Senate/House of Lords model.

    I think you make some good points about the equality of the Canadian Senate, indeed the fact that Western Provinces have much larger populations than other Provinces (particularly the Maritimes) yet still have equal Senate representation is troubling. Moreover it enforces the political dominance of Ontario and Quebec over the national landscape, which does not reflect the economic narrative that many Canadians envision.

    A democratised Senate and State Upper Houses (which we still have as well), are not always conducive to an effective democracy, and looking at the other end of the spectrum, because Senators (in Australia) are elected that legitimises them, even if they are members of Minor/Micro Parties or Independents who get in with a small percentage of the vote.
    These elections, we have 12 senators per state (6 states) plus 2 senators per territory (2 states), with half the senate up for election every 3 years- are still loathed by many for a number of reasons:
    1) The 6 year terms is considered too long by many, as Senators are perceived to not represent a particular area but rather a whole state, former Prime Minister Paul Keating dubbed them “unrepresentative swill”
    2) Some states are more populated than others meaning Senators from smaller states require a lower number of votes due to the quota being uniform across the Commonwealth. For example, 14% in New South Wales may mean 1.5 million people but in Tasmania may mean 80,000,
    3) Following on from this, States with lower populations and poor economies have the same/equal representation in the Senate as the higher populated/growth economies. This is somewhat negated by partisan representation, as Senators sit with their parties not their states.
    4) The power of the Senate is exactly the same as the House of Reps, with a number of exception: they can’t introduce money or appropriation bills (namely tax and spending). Which is why the Treasurer (our version of your Finance Minister, although we have one of those too- our Fin Minister looks after Public Service expenditure) never sits in the Senate, as they wouldn’t be able to deliver a budget.
    5) Parties who may win landslide elections in the lower house may still govern in minority in the Senate due to the half-senate overhang from the prior election and due to the Australian public’s propensity to hedge its bets (we are convicts after all). This means someone will vote for a major party (Labor or Coalition) in the lower house but vote for a minor party/independent or in some cases the other major party in the Senate because they like to keep things balanced. This leads to massive gridlock.

    One noteworthy point about our Senate which I like is that any minister with the exception of the Treasurer and the Prime Minister (although technically he/she can be a member of the Senate but convention has never allowed) can come from the Senate. Their question time is slightly different, as they allow follow up questions, compared to the House of Reps which allows for longer responses and at times, depending on the Speaker, more free association.

    I like elements of the Canadian Senate/House of Lords model, however I’d tweak it slightly. I would still keep it appointed (wish we could here), that way you can have more experts in Policy rather than 1-issue Senators or party hacks who are only there because they run under the umbrella of their party.
    More ministers should come from the Senate, they don’t represent a particular electorate/riding after all. That way you can have Senators who specialise in policy areas or are indeed former bureaucrats, academics, jurists, etc…

    If the Eastern provinces don’t wish to lose Senate representation to make it more equal then the constitution should allow for the Western states to reach senatorial parity with them. That way the equality aspect is still there.

    A hybrid model would have a combination of Prime Minister and Premier appointments. That way their could not be party dominance as provinces much like our states are often run by a different party to the federal government.

    The elected alternative would be to have them elected once and either have a retirement age or a term limit age (the Chinese 10 year governance model or a 2 decade multiple-parliament approach could also be embraced).

    Really enjoy your articles, even though it is 2017 and I have only just come across them


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