Starting over on Senate reform
Alberta is pursuing an elected Senate for Canada; however, it won’t function as hoped, even if Prime Minister Stephen Harper succeeds with implementation.
As experience from other countries shows, elected senates in parliaments don’t represent regions well. Australia’s elected senate votes by party, not region. The reason is parliaments have non-confidence votes that can overturn governments, making party solidarity strong. COAG (Council of Australian Governments) represents regions.
Elected senates are more often found in presidential systems, such as the U.S., which lack confidence votes, making co-operation across party lines on local matters not unusual. The U.S. also grants some powers to Washington that in Canada are provincial and beyond our Senate’s review.
Canada’s appointed Senate slows controversial legislation, alerting the public for lobby of MPs; it rarely blocks the elected Commons if public opinion doesn’t alter government plans.
Two elected houses are more likely to deadlock when controlled by different parties. Alberta’s plan has no deadlock provision. Australia’s deadlock-breaking process does not work well. Other parliaments with elected senates, such as Spain’s, have a weak senate to avoid deadlock.
Is a more legislatively powerful Canadian Senate, one that would also represent regions, even possible in our parliamentary system?
Representation by population for the House of Commons gives Ontario and Quebec together 60 per cent of seats. The Senate was to balance that with representation by area; it has never done so.
Alberta seeks to fortify the present Senate by election; with Alberta’s six seats and Ontario’s and Quebec’s 24 each, that would weaken Alberta. The previous plan, a Triple E Senate — equal numbers of senators by province, elected, effective, would have given the six smallest provinces a majority with 13.5 per cent of the population. Neither plan can achieve regional balance, let alone regional representation in national affairs.
Regional representation includes not only means to protect vulnerable areas, but also co-ordination of government levels on economic and social challenges where both the provinces and Parliament have roles. Case in point is the standoff over the Canada Job Grant.
Reform also should retain a capacity for what the current Senate does well: creation of good quality policy studies at low cost.
Suitable persons appointed to the Senate for lengthy terms specialize through committee work, gaining more expertise in a policy field than MPs with frequent turnover and more diverse duties. Senate committees usually hold more extensive public hearings than do Commons ones. Absence of election facilitates co-operation, and multi-party endorsement of well-researched Senate reports. Final say for policy and political accountability remain with the elected Commons.
For example, the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, when chaired by Liberal Colin Kenney with Liberal majorities, was a critic of Liberal government rust-out of military equipment. Later, minority Conservative governments better equipped our troops in Afghanistan.
After, when Canadians suffered twice the casualty rate as allies from road-side bombs, Kenney pushed for helicopters. When acquired, they saved limbs and lives.
Harper seeks a Supreme Court opinion on his Senate reform initiative, including “elected-appointee” senators. A “no” could create an opening for ideas from other parliamentary systems.
Exhibit A: Germany’s senate (Bundesrat) is the actual provincial governments. Voting is weighted, ranging from three for the smallest province to six for the largest. It does not hand control of the central government to provinces because the elected chamber (Bundestag) has final say in most matters, unlike Canada’s already powerful provinces.
Exhibit B: Australia’s COAG brings government levels face-to-face, but outside parliamentary transparency and accountability, where an elected senate fails to represent regions.
I believe Canada should a) add an intergovernmental dimension to our Senate, making room for both government levels; b) retain the Senate’s research and public consultation functions but add joint appointment: many policy fields today have local and national aspects and are occupied to some extent by both levels.
Senate powers should be on a sliding scale, with regional control (absolute veto) for shared matters that are closer to the local; federal final say (suspensive veto) for matters more national. Weighted voting by region and government level can assist communitarian justice: a topic too extensive for this space today.
The Council of the Federation is the place to begin — now only a premiers’ meeting, by adding the federal government similar to COAG. There, evolve practical final says between government levels for shared powers.
Lastly, merge the Council of the Federation with the Senate: for a policy-strong, regionally balanced parliamentary Senate.
David Baugh, PhD, is an instructor and head of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at Red Deer College.