Thursday, May 30, 2013

There is an argument for the Senate – just not this Senate, or this House of Commons

The Senate has been much in the news lately, with the expense troubles of a few Senators – compounded by the mishandling of their investigation – bringing much  negative attention to the other place. While this is really a scandal about Stephen Harper’s decision-making and the style of governance he fosters, a serious and real national debate about the Senate’s place in our democracy is long overdue.

It’s easy to look at the shenanigans and say just abolish the thing. The NDP wasted little time in making that case. I think the misdoings of a few Senators is a poor argument for abolishing the thing. However, the NDP are long-standing abolitionists and, while I disagree for reasons I’ll outline shortly, I credit them for their consistency on the issue. Some of the provinces have also begun making pro-abolition musings. Some Conservatives too, although the official party position – in spite of their utter lack of substantive progress towards it – is to reform the Senate to be at least elected and effective; I’m not sure about the equal.

The Liberal position on the Senate has always been a bit more difficult to pin down, other than, of course, preferring we be the ones doing the appointing. From what I can gather, we’re lukewarm on elections, fine with term limits, and (rightly) believe real reform requires constitutional amendment – which we’re not keen on doing. The latter issue has been referred by the government to the Supreme Court for an opinion; I think the answer is fairly obvious, but we’ll see what they say. Stéphane Dion Dion has also done some interesting work in this area.

While abolition is an easy and populist argument to make, there is a case to be made for keeping the Senate. I don’t think I’ve heard it made yet, though.

I want us to keep the Senate. Just not this Senate. Let me make this clear: I’m arguing for a substantively reformed Senate, not the status quo. With respect to all the fine reports, hearings and second thought the upper chamber provides today, it’s not enough to justify its existence in its current form.

In any democracy with a bicameral system, the two houses are meant to each serve separate and distinct purposes. The lower chamber, our House of Commons, is meant to be the people’s house, pure representation by population. This would mean areas with more people get more seats, and more populous regions would have more representation. The purest form of democracy, but in a geographically diverse country with divergent regional interests, there’s potential for important perspectives not to be heard. Which is where the upper chamber – our Senate – is supposed to come in: as a body with representation equally allotted not by population but by region, providing a regional counterbalance to the rep by pop voice of the lower chamber.

Problem is, neither chambers fill those roles today. For the House of Commons, just look at the last round of seat redistribution. Instead of proportioning seats purely on population, politics meant faster growing regions remained somewhat under-represented, Quebec still had to be kept at a certain level, and seats were added because taking away seats from any area was deemed politically unacceptable.

And then there’s the Senate. With a formula based on how Canada looked closer to Confederation than today, the regional balance is out of whack. The Maritimes are over-represented; the West under-represented. It’s also unelected, which, frankly, is a positive right now because, without a regional rebalancing and a revision of the powers of the Senate – if we elected Senators today and gave them a democratic mandate, gridlock could ensue, and the West would be greatly disadvantaged. Without a democratic mandate today, Senators rightly exercise just a fraction of their constitutional authority.

I’d favour abolition over the status quo. Abolition would still, though, require a constitutional amendment and probably provincial negotiation. So before we decide between abolition and reform, the question we need to ask is, in an ideal world, do we want a true bicameral system, and is a regional check on the rep by pop power of the Commons desirable?

I think, in a country like Canada, that regional check is essential. The perspectives of the West, of Quebec, of the Maritimes, and of Ontario, are often unique and different. A properly-constituted Senate would ensure that, as laws are made and the future of our country charted, these perspectives are heard.

And if we’re going to be doing the constitutional thing anyway, I’d rather fix our democracy and get this thing right.  So, as part of such a process, here’s a few things I’d like to see:

  • An overhaul of representation in the House of Commons, including a reviewable cap on the number of MPs and the proportioning of seats purely on population, moving seats from declining-population areas to higher-population areas.
  • An elected Senate, with set terms and an end to the archaic constitutional requirements for a minimum age and land ownership. Also, rebalancing representation so Senate seats are allotted equally by region.
  • A revision of the powers and role of the Senate. It should be effective in reviewing and proposing legislation, and curbing the excesses of the House, but to avoid gridlock there should be a mechanism for the House to over-turn a Senate move to over-rule it if a certain threshold of support (say, two-thirds) can be achieved.

Getting to such a model may not be possible. It would require a great deal of negotiation among competing federal and provincial interests, not to mention Indigenous and municipal. There would need to be a great deal of give and take, and getting the balance right would be difficult. The temptation would be to widen the scope of the constitutional negotiation, which would be a mistake – history shows focus in these things is important.

Let’s remember though, abolition would also be difficult. It’s not as easy as waving a magic wand. Provincial support (and likely a referendum) would also be required for an abolition constitutional amendment, and the same competing interests would need to be satisfied.

If we’re increasingly agreed though that blithely accepting the status quo because change is difficult is no longer acceptable, then change becomes inevitable. The only question is, what change. It’s time we had a national debate about what that change should be.

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Vancouverois said...

"I think, in a country like Canada, that regional check is essential. The perspectives of the West, of Quebec, of the Maritimes, and of Ontario, are often unique and different."

"The West" and "the Maritimes" are by no means monolithic entities. The Conservative (formerly Reform) argument in favour of equal representation from each province makes a certain amount of sense. We could look to Australia as an example of how to accomplish that within the Westminster system.

While I can understand people balking at the idea of giving PEI as many seats as Ontario, the current distribution is simply unacceptable. At the very least, we cannot continue to have the provinces of Alberta and BC (6 Senators apiece) each outweighed by New Brunswick (10).

I'm not in favour of outright abolition myself - the Senate does at least in theory represent a much-needed check on the power of any majority government.

Jeff said...

I'd be open to discussing something like a set number of Senate seats per province, although I'd probably want some flexibility on number of seats per province. Having, say, two each for PEI and British Columbia doesn't feel right. But it's something to explore and debate.

Vancouverois said...

Hey, even that would be no worse a disparity than the US already has between Rhode Island and California, right?

Personally, I've always very much admired the "equal" part of triple-E as developed in the US. While I understand people's hesitations about it, I still think it makes a great deal of sense - especially for any large continent-spanning nation that wants and expects to grow.

Maybe some of those hesitations would be addressed if the powers of the Senate were limited to certain questions? Something to think about.