Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Reforming the Canadian Senate

Even before the most recent spate of embarrassing stories coming from the Canadian Senate it was an institution in desperate need of reform. Senators Duffy, Wallin, Brazeau and others merely make the case all the clearer. The federal NDP has long advocated to abolish the institution. It is not an unreasonable solution to the current problem. There is some question to how badly we need the Canadian Senate at all.

The trouble, I think, is that we do need an effective upper house to help govern Canada, but we have been robbed of that opportunity. Given the power of the provinces and the strong regional character of this country it makes a great deal of sense to maintain the Senate and help it do the work it was intended to do. In many democracies the lower house, our House of Commons, is supposed to be a hotbed of populist radical ideas and the upper house is supposed to safeguard against that. Obviously that is not necessary in the strictest space in Canada. If the House of Commons more accurately reflected population, which it should, the Senate would need a counterbalance. Otherwise the majority population from a couple of provinces could abuse the other regions. It’s about checks and balances.

Former Ontario cabinet minister Greg Sorbara offered a possible solution to make the Senate a non-partisan chamber for sober second thought. I do not believe that is the solution. The Senate should be partisan and contentious, like any good democratic body. It should also jealously guard its privileges against the House of Commons and the Prime Minister/executive.

In all the world I believe the Australians offer us the best possible model. The Australian Senate has six senators for each of its states. They are elected using proportional representation, and before that, preferential ballot. We could follow Australia and adopt their best practices to make the two elected chambers work. The Canadian Senate currently has 104 members, the reforms I am proposing would bring it down to 63 (60 for the provinces, 3 for the territories) or 78 (provinces and territories each get 6). Given that we are paring down the Senate, I would suggest some other reforms, like dedicating 6-10 seats to Aboriginal, Metis and Inuit Canadians. Perhaps gender parity could be imposed as well, each province should have three male and three female Senators. 

Federations should balance the will of the public against the interests of its constituent parts. This is best represented at the federal level by two competing chambers serving these different interests. Reform should be our first goal, but I suppose if that is impossible abolition is the only choice. However, there is no reason it should be impossible. There should be some consensus that improving our democracy is critical. With power so centrally concentrated why not strengthen the second house? The legitimacy to govern can only come from elections, it’s time to fix that mistake from 1867.

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