In Canada, there are two houses of parliament; the elected members of the House of Commons represent the lower house while the non-elected senators represent the upper house or the senate. While both houses are required to pass legislation and both have the ability to create legislation (although the senate can’t create bills that involve money), the House of Commons has always controlled the ins and outs of the Canadian Government.
The Senate has always been as Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister, once put it, “a place of sober second thought”. It has remained relatively powerless and has seen even less reform since the Constitution Act of 1867. Powerless that is, until Stephen Harper decided that Conservatives in the senate call a snap vote on The Climate Change Accountability Act, a climate change bill that would have required the Canadian government to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The bill was defeated without a debate.
The Canadian Senate usually doesn’t defeat bills, but has on occasion. In the entire decade of the nineteen nineties the Senate defeated bills four times, already in the last six months the Conservative led Senate has killed two. In Harper’s four years plus reign, he has appointed 34 Conservative Senators out of 105 seats, A bit odd considering he is one of the biggest supporters of senate reform.
To his Credit, only 5% of Canadians believe the senate should stay the way it is. 44% think the senate should be elected and 28% (46% in Quebec) believe the senate should be abolished altogether. I don’t believe in either of these solutions and I’ll explain why later.
The problem I have with Harper’s Senate “vision” is that it completely Americanizes our upper chamber. Harper would like to see an elected senate with a maximum term limit of eight years. This would no doubt lead to the same partisan stalemates we see in Washington. Imagine a party that wins a majority in the House of Commons, but can’t get legislation through because the Senate is controlled by another party. Sound familiar? The Government would grind to a halt and Canadians wouldn’t stand for it.
I have no interest in seeing our country try and copy a system that doesn’t work, but like most progressives, I do believe in change and that includes limiting senate terms. Under the current rules, a senator is allowed to sit until he reaches the tender age of seventy five. There are still senators serving that were appointed by Prime Ministers Trudeau and Clark.
One thing I’ll never support is an elected senate. An election for senators would cost taxpayers too much money and the streets and airwaves would be filled with signs and advertising to promote men and women no one has ever heard of. It would also do little to fix the problem of representation by population. Do we elect 24 senators from Quebec and only 6 from British Columbia as the current representation allows? Do we add a hundred more seats to the senate?
After every national election there are always complaints from the lesser parties about the lack of proportional representation. For instance, the Green Party will receive 10% of the vote, but not have anyone elected to the House of Commons. You might also see that the NDP gets 15% to 20% of the vote, but get elected to only 5% to 10% of the seats. I think this is where the Senate should come in.
I think proportional representation based on federal election results would be perfect for the senate. The Green Party that gets 10% of the vote would have about 10 members in the senate, if the Conservatives get 35% of the vote they would get about 35 senators and so on. The senators would be chosen by the party leaders and would sit as long as parliament does thereby fixing the term limit problem.
The representation by population that should be essential to the senate would have to depend on what region (not Province) the parties get the majority of their votes so that you won’t wind up with a Green Party Senator representing Albertaâ€¦ God forbid.
I think this is a very viable solution, it may have a few holes that need to be plugged, but overall it’s better than what we have now. Mind you, we can always get rid of the senate altogether. After all, the House of Commons was created in order for the common people to make the decisions, hence the name. The senate was created for the elites; in fact to be a senator it is the law that you have to own a certain amount of land, about $4000 worth. The amount hasn’t changed in a hundred and forty years of course, but then again, neither has the senate.