Recent news reports about three members of the Senate appear to have diverted Canadians from more important issues about the institution. What is its purpose? Is it relevant to a modern democracy? Should it be abolished?
Quite correctly in a parliamentary democracy, the House of Commons reflects Canada’s majority will on a representation by population basis. In practice, few MPs today provide effective regional voices — at least in House votes — because since about 1900 all MPs usually vote in uniform party blocs under one of the tightest party disciplines imposed in any democratically-elected assembly in the world.
This political culture and the fact that Ontario and Quebec still hold almost two-thirds of our national population are the main reasons why Canada needs an elected second chamber. Virtually all other federal democracies entrench legislative protection for smaller provinces in an upper house. For most of our history, the House of Commons has been dominated both numerically and psychologically by members from the two inner provinces. Legitimate concerns of outer Canadians require equal representation from each province in a reformed upper house.
Elsewhere, MPs now seem more empowered to represent regional interests more successfully. In Britain, for example, since the mid-1960s a number of MPs in each parliament have shown a willingness to defy party whips in order to represent their constituents’ views more effectively on a range of issues.
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The American Senate was established as the primary vehicle for regional representation in their national government, with senators expected to defend the interests of their states when conflicts inevitably arose between Washington and the states.
Canadian senators do not provide effective regional representation because most attempt to represent the “national view” by transcending provincial and regional interests. In addition, since prime ministers alone appoint senators, they have no legitimacy in democratic terms. Our Senate shrieks for reform from a representational perspective.
Since 1967, there have been at least 25 different proposals for reform, all of which have been blocked, mostly it appears by politicians from Ontario and Quebec favouring no change in our two-chamber legislative model. Some of them would no doubt like to abolish the Senate and remove the regional fairness hopes of outer Canadians once and for all.
In my view, the best second chamber model for Canada today is the Australian Senate, partly because, like Canada, about two-thirds of Australia’s population live in two of its six states. Both countries also share a tradition of parliamentary democracy and federalism.
The founders of Australia’s four smaller states refused any form of union in the 1890s unless it included a second house representing each state equally and with essentially the same powers as the House of Representatives. After it was created in 1901, however, the Aussie Senate for decades accomplished little for regional interests because the two large national parties soon dominated its membership and imposed strict party discipline on their senators.
In 1948, however, without realizing the full implications, the Labour government of the day introduced proportional voting for senators. This required voters to rank candidates according to preference, with a complicated arithmetical formula determining which candidates were successful. Minor party and independent candidates soon found themselves benefiting from the flow of voters’ second and third preferences. By 1955, a relatively even split in Senate seats between the two major party groupings gave independent and minor party senators the balance of power for the first time.
Since then, few governments have held a majority in both chambers and the Senate has usually been autonomous in the sense that because minor parties hold the balance of power the national parties cannot control its daily agenda. The leaderships of both national parties appear to resent the loss of control over the Senate because they each want to monopolize the entire legislative process.
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An increasing number of Australians vote for one of the major parties in the lower house, but also for one of the minor ones or independents in the Senate. The most important role of the Australian Senate is to check the executive branch led by the prime minister, something Canada needs badly as well.
In short, adopting the Australian Triple-E Senate to Canadian circumstances would constitute a significance improvement in our democratic governance. Achieving it under our 1982 constitution will not be easy, but is certainly feasible with some determination by all involved, especially citizens. Let’s do it.
(Photos courtesy The Canadian Press)
David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.