The Senate – throwing out the baby with the bathwater?

In these days of extremely polarised politics, Canadians (particularly those of us on the left) have developed a bit of a tendency towards opposing broader concepts because of smaller (often perceived) problems within them.

I think the biggest example is the HST – in both BC and Ontario, there were massive pushes lead by the NDP to eliminate the HST. In BC, that campaign won – BC voted to return to the PST, which was brought back in April of this year.  Why the opposition? Because when the HST was brought in (in both provinces), the tax base was widened without any reduction in the tax rate, effectively becoming a “tax grab.”  Of course, this analysis ignored the fact that, in both provinces, credits were increased for low-income individuals to compensate for this increase, but we’ll leave that aside for a moment. In BC, the opposition was also related to another political problem – an explicit statement from the incoming BC Liberals that they would not introduce HST, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement that, actually, they would. BC voters were rightfully upset by this.  But these two problems – an increase in taxes, and a broken election promise – had nothing to do with the HST system itself.  Now that we’ve gone back to PST, a lot of people have grumbled about how, actually, HST is a pretty good system. Most people would agree – this is the first time any jurisdiction anywhere in the world has converted its system to a sales tax like the PST after using a VAT system like the HST.  The problem wasn’t having a Harmonized Sales Tax, but in our anger we threw the HST baby out with the BC Liberal bathwater, so to speak.  Unfortunately, we didn’t go on to actually throw out the BC Liberals at the election last week, but that’s another story.

I fear all of the Canadian Senate’s problems are being subjected to the same analysis.  The Senate, for sure, has some terrible problems associated with it. Before even looking at this month’s scandals, there are some structural concerns.  It is unelected – senators are appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister.  There is absolutely nothing democratic about this in any way.  It’s generally unaccountable – as a British Columbian, I can’t do anything if my senators vote in ways I disagree with, or if they don’t even bother to show up for work.  And lately, it’s been mired with spending scandals – Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin being only the latest in a long series of senators presumably only in the role to collect a (sometimes substantial) paycheque.

But does abolishing it altogether make sense? The senate does actually serve a role in our government, which is something we often forget (or never learned in the first place).  Admittedly, Australia’s upper house does a better job of it, but Canada’s senate and Australia’s perform basically the same role – these houses are not the House of Lords after which they were modelled.  One role we all learn about is that the Senate is a “sober second thought” – it’s a house filled with people who have been parliamentarians for much longer (some would say too long, and I would agree) than those who sit in the House of Commons, who can rationally think through bills put before it to determine what impacts the bills will actually have, and whether their intentions will be fulfilled.  This is meant to be a contrast to the aptly-named House of Commons, which is supposed to be representative of, and filled with, the “common” people – while we have a lot of lawyers in our House, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The Senate also attempts to fill a role in Canada’s federation – we often forget we’re a federation because the federal government has a lot more power allocated to it than most federations, but we are one.  Seats in the Senate are intentionally allocated disproportionately, with weightings based on member-provinces rather than on population distribution.  We need to keep in mind that Canada only exists as a single country because all ten members of the country agree to work together at this table.  The Senate is the only place in our system that provides a space for representatives of each province to ensure that all legislation passed is in the interest of their provinces.  This prevents more populous provinces such as Ontario and Quebec from making decisions for the rest of the country without consulting us at all.  The role it is supposed to serve (though I would agree it has not served this role well in the past) is to provide each province with a substantial voice at the table.  I often hear arguments on this point about first ministers’ conferences — but ultimately, unless the matter is of provincial jurisdiction, such conferences have no power whatsoever over actual laws that get passed, so they do not serve as a substitute for our senate.

Whenever I bring up the 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 just get rid of it.”  When I point out democracy isn’t cheap, and the relative cost of the Senate (particularly if we have actual controls on spending like we should) is minimal, they say we should abolish because it’s undemocratic.  When I point out it doesn’t have to be undemocratic, they say it’s shown how useless it is over the years and it serves no purpose.  This usually goes on forever in circles.

My point is that the Senate does serve a purpose – this quote from Australian Jack Lang in Australia’s senate reform discussions from the 1940s sums up exactly what Australia’s senate is for, and what Canada’s senate was meant to be for:

“The senate was primarily intended [by the founders of Federation] to safeguard states’ rights. It was the house of compromise. It was to prevent the larger states from squeezing the smaller states. It was to balance representation in the legislative machinery. It was to reconcile differences between the states on such problems as protection and free trade.”

He then went on to say that the Senate no longer does these things – which is arguable – but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s intended to do this.  Ultimately, Senators in Australia are accountable to the people who elect them (yes, elect), on a proportional-by-state basis.  There is no reason Canada cannot have a Senate that is elected on a proportional basis (which is not the same as Harper’s first-however-many-seats-are-empty-past-the-post system he has implemented) by province.  This solves the two primary concerns Canadians have with our Senate — it would make it democratic, and it would make it accountable.  Like Australia, we could have terms fixed at the length of two formations of the House of Commons, to ensure our government has some continuity and the ability to provide more mature reflection on bills that are being passed.  At any given point in time, roughly half the Senate would be comprised of members with at least three years’ experience as legislators – allowing the House of Commons some more freedom to have “inexperienced” and younger members that better reflect the population.

I’ve been following Australian’s politics the last few years (I spent a year living there, after all), and have seen how the need to compromise with the Senate has shaped policy.  Even though the current government has had a minority in both houses, it has been capable of working together with other parties (without a formal coalition) to pass significant legislative changes.  The last few years have been tumultuous, to say the least, but nowhere along the way has anyone (seriously) argued that Australia’s senate should be abolished — even the Labor Party gave up on that notion 35 years ago.

So let’s not throw the Senate baby out with the bathwater that is wasteful and unelected senators.  Let’s fix the cause of the Senate’s undemocratic nature – the fact that Senators are unelected – and not the symptom.  When Hollinger International’s board of directors that was hand-picked by Conrad Black failed repeatedly to do what it was supposed to do, new independent board members were what salvaged what was left of the company and fought for shareholders.  Let’s not let things get that far, and bring in the democratically-elected accountable senators now.

I don’t think any of our political parties currently have it right – the NDP wants to abolish the senate, the Liberals seem to want the status quo, and the Conservatives want advisory votes using first-past-the-post.  It’s unusual for me to side with the Conservatives on anything, but in my view they’re closer to the best option than anyone — a proportional-representation-by-province elected senate, using ranked ballots, seems to me the best way to go.  But as long as we keep debating “get rid of it altogether vs Harper’s flawed electoral proposal” we’ll never get there.  The Senate should not go away, so let’s discuss real policy alternatives for how to fix it.


One response to this post.

  1. Before anyone asks for clarification on the way an elected senate would work, here’s the summary from Wikipedia on Australia’s system, modified to reflect what I think would work in Canada:

    The Senate voting paper under the single transferable vote system would list all candidates running for Senate under their party titles, with boxes beside each.

    Electors must either:
    1) Vote for an individual party by writing the number “1” in a single box above the line – this means the elector wants their preferences distributed according to a party’s or group’s officially registered group voting ticket. (Parties have the option to decide where their reallocated votes go, if they are not the winners). or,
    2) Vote for all candidates by writing the numbers 1, 2, 3, through to the last number (in this example, 26) in all the individual boxes below the line. In Australia, voters who choose this “below the line” option must vote for all boxes in sequence, but I don’t think this should be a requirement in Canada.

    Because each state in Australia elects six senators at each half-senate election, the quota for election is only one-seventh or 14.3% (one third or 33.3% for territories, where only two senators are elected). Once a candidate has been elected with votes reaching the quota amount, any votes they receive in addition to this may be distributed to other candidates as preferences. Canada’s could easily mimic this by applying a similar formula (quote for election being [1/(1+number of empty seats)].


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