Just a thought, to start 2019: Senate reform (a hardy Canadian perennial)

2YOMJnTK_400x400I have nothing but the greatest respect for Senator Peter Harder, the Trudeau-Liberal government’s representative in the Senate, he has served Canada well as a diplomat, senior civil servant, scholar and, now, as a Senator. But he is talking nonsense when he says, according to a report on CBC News, that “the election of Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer as prime minister would risk reverting the Senate to a body dominated by “a practice of partisanship that has not served Canada well.”

Andrew Scheer isn’t the problem; nor is a partisan Senate. The Senate is in need of reform … that’s been obvious for generations, but all that Prime Minister Trudeau wants to do amounts to little more than tinkering; it’s not a reformation, not even a small one.

It seems obvious to me that a federal state, like Canada, needs a bicameral legislature: one chamber, the House of Commons should represent Canadians, in their communities  in pretty much as close as we can get to equal representation ~ the French name for that chamber, Chambre des communes, is actually a better term.*  The other chamber needs to represent the sovereign partners in the federation, the formerly self governing colonies and territories that united to form Canada (and America and Australia and so on). In a perfect world I guess they should be equal ~ PEI, (population about 150,000) should have the same number of senators as Ontario (population 14 Million, about 90 times as many). There is, of course, a good model for that: in the US Senate the state of California (population almost 40 million) has two senators, the same as the state of Wyoming (population 580,000, again a ratio within shouting distance of 80:1) .

Anyway, while there are arguments for and against equal representation (Australia has 12 senators for each state and Germany, in the Bundesrat, each state is represented by 3, 4, 5 or 6 delegates who vote, always, as a state block) I propose something of a mix: regional equality and each senator to cast her or his own vote.

What ought not to be open for any discussion at all is the method we Canadians use to select senators ~ they are of course, almost all, like Senator Harder, appointed by the prime minister of the day for day for whatever reasons seem proper to him or her … that’s wrong. It harks back to 1867 when many people still feared democracy and wanted a “chamber of sober second thought” in case the popularly elected House of Commons got a little too uppity and voted for something with which the ‘great and the good‘ in Halifax, Montreal and Toronto might disagree. We need to get over our 19th century fears and elect all senators.

My personal preference is that, since the Senate is a sort of ‘House of the Provinces,’ then the senators from each province should be elected during provincial general elections. The-Senate-Project-Senate-Chamber-1This might be good use for proportional representation: each provincial Senate delegation might be chosen from party lists based on each party’s share of the popular vote (over something like a 5% floor) in each provincial general election, thus assuring that it, the Senate delegation, represents the expressed political will of each province’s people. So, just for example, in the recent Ontario election the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario got 40.5% of the vote so they would have elected 10 senators (9.72, actually) and the NDP would have sent 8 senators to Ottawa and the provincial Liberals would have elected 5 senators … that’s only 23. Now, the Ontario Greens finished below 5% so they must get 0, and so then the Lieutenant Governor would have to select one more senator from one of the lists of the three parties who finished above the 5% floor. He or she should not have to explain why (s)he picked this that or the other party.

This brings up the matter of seat distribution. The Canadian Constitution divides the country into four regions and the Senate has grown as shown in this illustration …

Screen Shot 2018-12-23 at 11.23.56

… which makes no sense at all in 2019. Why on earth does British Columbia (population 4.8 Million have only six senators while Quebec (population 8.4 Million) has four times as many senators and Newfoundland and Labrador (population less than 600,000) also has six seats?

Very clearly the Senate needs reformation and I am about 99.99% certain that the Supreme Court of Canada will allow some willy-nilly tinkering, of the sort Prime Minister Trudeau proposes, but will not allow the sort of serious reform that is so evidently overdue without a full-blown Constitutional Conference … fair enough: let’s bite the bullet and, finally, 150+ years after Confederation, screw up enough courage to decide to elect our upper house like America has, but only since about 1920, and as do Australia, Germany and India.

If we had a serious Constitutional Conference, attended only by responsible adults, we would end up with, I think, only five provinces …

  • British Columbia and the Yukon;
  • The three prairies provinces, including the two large territories, combined into one;
  • Ontario;
  • Quebec; and
  • An Atlantic Canadian province …

… and each of those five would be represented, equally, in the Senate of Canada.

That will not happen; but we might want to keep the Senate as a regional rather than provincial house, with five regions and three territories. Each of the three territories would send two senators to Ottawa; each of the five regions would send 30; that’s 156 senators, so far, and I would propose that each of the major Aboriginal Groups (three are recognized in the Constitution: Indians (properly referred to as First Nations), Inuit and the Métis) would have three representatives each, elected by the, I suppose, the Assembly of First Nations, the Inuit Tapiriit Kantami, the Métis National Council, which brings the total to 165. Terms would be fixed, coinciding with provincial elections or with fixed, say four-year terms for Aboriginal senators. In this Senate I would see that BC, Ontario and Quebec would have 30 senators each, the four Atlantic provinces would each have have the number of senators they have now ~ one principle is that no one, not even PEI, must ever be asked to ‘give up‘ anything at all, not even Mike Duffey, for the common good. My guess is that Alberta would have 14 senators while Manitoba and Saskatchewan would have 8 each.

It’s just a thought … but let us, in 2019, decide to become a real, mature democracy and elect both houses of our parliament like almost everyone else does.

____

* That term ‘commons’ is something which some people, erroneously, believe represents the common people as opposed to the lords, perhaps thinking that the British term “Lords and Commons” means that … it doesn’t, it goes back to Norman French and means communities. In 1264 Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester, invited both knights of the shire and burgesses from the towns to his parliament which became the model for almost all since, almost everywhere.

 

 

 

One thought on “Just a thought, to start 2019: Senate reform (a hardy Canadian perennial)

  1. Some good stuff here. I don’t like PR for Senate selection – what happens if you or I wish to run as an independent? As well, you are right the the regional calculus for the Senate is stuck in 1867 – lumping BC to Manitoba (and everything in between) isn’t a really good classification of Canada’s distinctiveness. Perhaps there are better ways? Urban-Rural split? Perhaps just handing out 4 per province? I don’t like the idea of an aboriginal senate seats – dividing government based on ethnic background just doesn’t seem right.

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