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Senate reform

Here’s a wonkish-type post from me today on Senate reform, since there’s another poll out today (h/t Harperbizarro)that shows many Canadians in favour of an elected Senate.

In my opinion, If you’re going to do reform, Harper’s piecemeal way isn’t the way to go (it may not even be constitutionally legal); you need to open the Constitution and hammer out an agreement with the provinces. It’s more difficult to do it that way, but if you’re serious about it and not just trying to use it as a wedge issue for stirring up your supporters, then that’s the way you do it. If you fail, you drop it and try again later (think how long and the several attempts it took Pierre Trudeau to get the Canadian Constitution repatriated).

If the Senate is elected, it becomes more legitimate, and it theoretically could become a more valid ‘sober 2nd thought’ on the House of Commons. Perhaps more specifically, an elected Senate becomes a potential check on the government party in power, and the power of the Prime Minister, since power has become so concentrated with the PM and his office in recent years (subject to how the Senate’s party composition is, of course. If a party has a plurality/majority position in both legislative chambers, then the Senate would be more likely to pass bills more easily and quickly what the House of Commons sends their way).

That said, I acknowledge the fears of those who see the gridlock that develops in the bicameral setup south of the border, and I agree that we don’t need that here. So, what do you do to break up a logjam that might develop between the 2 elected legislative bodies?

One way that has been suggested is to follow the Australian model. If a proposed bill is sent back and forth several times between the 2 legislative bodies because they are in dispute over passing it or any proposed amendments into law, the Governor-General declares a “double dissolution” and an election is called; the theory being that an election may let the voters decisively choose which legislative body’s version of the bill they like or dislike. When the election is over, the 2 legislative bodies jointly vote on the bill and also its proposed amendments, and the bill stands or falls on that joint vote, as well as the proposed amendments to the passed bill (if the original bill fails, then the amendments aren’t even brought up for a vote, I don’t think).

I like everything about that except the Double Dissolution part; we have enough trouble getting people to vote as it is. We’re currently in a pattern of minority governments and elections every 2 years on average right now, and throwing in more elections every time an elected Senate and House of Commons disagree – a distinct possibility in a minority government situation – would disgruntle voters and send voter participation through the basement; unfortunate, but a reality, I think.

Therefore, my proposal for resolving a dispute between the House and an elected Senate where a bill is passed back and forth several times without passage is simply this; the Governor General calls for a “joint sitting’ of the 2 chambers members, and the bill’s passage or rejection is voted on by both the MP’s and the Senators. If the bill passes, the same joint vote is held on each amendment.

Theoretically, the House should be able to get more of its bills passed, since it’s a larger body of members then the Senate is, but in a minority government situation in the lower House, you never know; so the Red Chamber would not be toothless here in this setup.


8 comments to Senate reform

  • Richard

    “Theoretically, the House should be able to get more of its bills passed, since it’s a larger body of members then the Senate is…”

    That entire analysis overlooks the fact that the Senate’s primary prupose is to protect regional interests that would otherwise be at the mercy of the tyranny of the majority in the Commons. Before we delve into a useless navel-gazing exercise about how the Senate works, doesn’t work, or ought to work, let’s not lose sight of why it’s there.

    • @Richard, The point is, the H of C has always been the authoritative legislative body in Canada, and I’m saying that under this arrangement, it would still remain so, but the Senate would not be completely neutered.

  • Yes, Scott, but what will you do if all the elected senators just follow their party line? You’d just have 105 more back benchers. Hardly an improvement, to my way of thinking. The “deadlock” would be no different from votes in the HofC … simply a numbers count. What we really need is independence … both MPs and senators need to stop being whipped into line. Then maybe we’d get somewhere.

    Oddly enough, that’s what the UK House of Commons is struggling with right now. Take a look at this, for instance … I’d be interested in your take on it.

    • @Elaine McCoy, Perhaps as someone else suggested, we allow the provinces to do the picking. He suggested that it be done by majority vote in the legislatures, but to me, that doesn’t aid in reducing the chances of them being all “backbenchers”, as you put it. (Quite honestly, you’d have a hard time convincing me that the Conservative Party Senators in the Upper House aren’t already “backbenchers”). If there are Senate elections held by the provinces at the provincial level – since the Senate after all is supposed to represent the provinces – perhaps that solves the backbench/partisan problem to a certain degree, as they’d be more likely to be independent, regardless of their affiliation, because they’d be geared towards (hopefully) representing their province well, more then their party.

      As for the article.. interesting story. I agree there should be ways to loosen the “whips”, but I’m not sure I like the idea of a single MP being given the power to scuttling a timetable or other things. It reminds me too much of what goes on in the US Senate with single Senators being able to put “holds” on that can only be broken by a 60 vote super-majority.

  • Jason Hickman

    “If you’re going to do reform, Harper’s piecemeal way isn’t the way to go (it may not even be constitutionally legal); you need to open the Constitution and hammer out an agreement with the provinces.”

    That may not be so. For instance, Senators were originally appointed for life. That was changed via the BNA Act, 1965 (now known as the Constitution Act, 1965) to set a “term limit” of 75 years of age for any Senators appointed after that Act came into force.

    The CA, 1965 was passed by the House of Commons and the Senate. I stand to be corrected, but I don’t think it required, nor did it receive, the approval of the Provinces.

    If that remains good law – and again, if somebody can show me something that says it isn’t, please do – that would suggest that the 8-year terms limits that the CPC is talking about, and possibly other changes besides, can be accomplished without seeking provincial approval, as long as the HOC and the Senate agree.

  • rural

    I regret to say that “dude” is probably right, however I will throw this in for debate….
    Elected senate? Yes, but when, how often and by whom?
    If we elect senators at the same time and by the same method that we elect MPs then expect the same results, i.e. a partisan political gridlock.
    If for instance we allow provincial governments to propose and elect by majority vote within those legislatures as positions become available then whilst partisan choices will still be proposed there would be a much broader range of views in those selected.
    I am all for parliamentary reform but there is little point in jumping from the fry pan into the fire and real reform of either body is going to take many years, a little tinkering by partisan politicians from any party is not going to cut it! That does not mean that we cannot start that process, although how do do so is the big question.

    Democracy requires dialog, please join us at

  • Dude

    The Senate only works as a sober because they’re unelected. If they had to go through the trouble of justifying their decisions to the millions of ignorant voters out there, they’d just go along with everything the government wants to save their jobs and avoid confrontation.

  • Northern PoV

    The only remotely useful piece of information in the story about this poll is:
    “The poll did not ask respondents whether they’d be willing to re-open the constitutional can of worms to get an elected Senate.”

    Part of Harper’s agenda here is to spawn polls like this one and then lots of discourse – most of it not as well thought-out or as well presented as yours here. Keep the base happy and provide some distractions to keep the media and chattering classes (that includes bloggers and commenters) busy.

    True Senate reform is simply too divisive for Canada to tackle at this point. Perhaps we will be mature enough in 50 years.

    And the type of tinkering Harper is attempting now, were he to succeed, will only cause further problems.

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