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Yet another Senate reform blogpost

Ideas to reform the Senate seem to be the Canadian version of the Holy Grail. This week, you’ve seen not calls for reform, but calls to abolish it with the behaviors coming to light  of a couple of Harper-appointed Conservative Senators in the form of Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau.

I’m against abolition – I think the Senate can perform its constitutionally designated role – representing the provinces/regions equally (edit: and acting as a chamber of sober second thought), if it was given some legitimacy and the patronage appointment power of the Prime Minister (or technically the Governor-General) removed. Of course, that means I’m for electing the Senators, but you can’t do it piecemeal like Harper is trying to do. It has to be done legally and constitutionally. I think the Supreme Court reference will point that out.

Some of you might say that an elected Senate might cause gridlock.. such as we see in the US, particularly if opposing parties control each chamber.  Well, my proposal would prevent that. It’s a modification of what the Australian Parliament does. In brief, (and I hope I’m being accurate here) a bill that is passed in the Lower House can be rejected (in its original form) in the Australian Senate and sent back with proposed modifications. The Lower House will either agree to those amendments (passing them, sending it back to the Senate where it presumably would be approved without trouble), or reject them, sending the Bill back in its unaltered form,  or they may perhaps counter-propose their own set of amendments to the Bill, and send it back to the Senate.. That can happen up to  3 times in a legislative sitting- passing the bill back and forth.

If they are still deadlocked, what happens is their Governor-General declares a double-dissolution, new elections are held for both Houses, and when the Parliament reconvenes after the election , there is an immediate joint Senate/Lower House vote on the Bill in question – first on any proposed amendments, and then if those modifications are rejected,  on the original bill passed by the Lower House before dissolution. The combined vote’s outcome- Yay or Nay on both the amendments and the original bill is the final vote on it, and the Bill will either get passed and signed into Royal Assent/Law (with or without amendment(s), or it fails.

My proposal would copy this to the letter – with one caveat.. I would not have the double dissolution provision in there, because in this political climate, there is too much partisanship  – so much so that several bills in a row might face the triple modification/rejection scenario., and Canadians certainly wouldn’t want elections every other month.

I would thus propose that a Bill that is passed by the elected House of Commons can be sent back with amendments up to 3 times by the elected Senate. If the 2 chambers still cannot agree, the G-G will call a joint sitting of Parliament, and the Bill will be voted on with amendments and if necessary in original passed form and given a joint Yay or Nay vote by both Senators and MP’s.

In this format, the H of C, which has more of the members should in theory be able to pass legislation that they want, if they have a majority in that chamber… but if the numbers are close, they would also have to recognize the risk of it failing and be open to compromise.

The Senate, with its responsibility for protecting regions/provinces, would be given legitimacy by election of Senators, and would be performing its constitutional role of “Sober Second Thought”, without causing endless delay or obstruction to bills.

That’s what I would do. Not that it matters, since Senate Reform as I said is the Holy Grail of Politics, but I’ve always thought this is the best way to reform the Senate and make it legitimate, but keep the House of Commons as the more or less predominant part of Parliament (minority House of Common  governments would be very interesting in this scenario too for passing legislation).


3 comments to Yet another Senate reform blogpost

  • Gayle

    This may look good in theory but it does ensure under-represented provinces in the Senate have reduced power.

    I have long said that the way Harper is doing his senate “reform” hurts Alberta, whose population justifies more senators, but that will not happen without a constitutional amendment. Democratizing the upper chamber before dealing with the inequality in representation gives too much power to Ontario and Quebec.

    I don’t believe Harper ever intends on enacting any of his provisions anyway. He’s just making noise to get the masses to donate. If he was serious about this he would have done this reference to the SCC in 2006.

  • Dan F

    The problem with the Senate is not the institution, but the nature of the individual who has now appointed the majority of the sitting Senate. If we are so fortunate as to elect a Competent, Thoughtful, Progressive Prime Minister in the future, over time we will see the quality of our Senate rise significantly, to the point where this is no longer a problem.

    • Actually Dan, I disagree; the problem is EXACTLY the institution. It is undemocratic and was designed that way on purpose.. patronage appointments and who gets selected to the Senate has been a bane since Confederation.

      For all that I admire Pierre Trudeau (and he’s the reason I was inspired to like politics by how he repatriated the Constitution as a pre-teen boy in 1982, his slew of plum/patronage appointments is the reason Turner got defeated by Mulroney; who then proceeded of course to expand the patronage beyond what Trudeau ever did – even appointing extra Senators in an effort to pass the GST.

      You say that a future Progressive Prime Minister would make better choices ? I disagree with that Prime Minister even doing appointments to begin with… and there is always the fact that another PM will come along who will again abuse it.

      No, the institution needs to be reformed and made accountable and electable.

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