A Purposeful Senate: Elected, Independent, and Focused on our Future

Credit: The Hill Times

Senate reform is always an election topic. Whether the proposed reforms are constitutional, through the executive, or abolitionist, they are reoccurring. In recent decades, any reforms that require constitutional amendments are turfed as governments do not want to engage in such a challenging endeavour. Reforms that do not require constitutional amendments fail to resolve the senate’s two fundamental issues.

Firstly, it is undemocratic that a legislative body is appointed and not elected in a fully functioning democracy like ours. Secondly, it is meaningless to have a legislative institution if it is completely ineffective in making policy. The Senate ought to be elected and have a more defined purpose.

Arguments in Favour

The only argument in favour of the Senate in its current form is as a “sober second thought”. The meaning of this overused idiom – to resist the hasty, intemperate, passionate desire of the people. How democratic.

Yet until 2015 the Senate rarely offered amendments to legislation – it acted as a rubber stamp. The Liberal government’s reforms to make it more independent certainly did increase its tendencies to offer amendments. Since the reforms, 25% of the legislation it reviews it now provides amendments to be considered. The House of Commons still does not have to accept any of it.

Failures of the Senate

The Senate will always suffer from one of two failures if it is not seriously reformed. The Senate cannot be democratic if it is not elected. This is a fundamental principle for democracy and an insult to Canadian rights that the Senate exists unelected. It has been ineffective for years as Senators were simply appointed to serve as Liberals or Conservatives. While it finally has become somewhat effective through the Liberal government’s reforms, it remains undemocratic.

In fact, by making the Senate more independent, it makes it less democratic. Now the Senate does simply rubber-stamp legislation presented by elected representatives but attempts to alter it. Under the current rules, the Senate will never be both elected and effective, and without these, it is failing Canadians.

An Elected Senate

To resolve these failures, constitutional amendments need to be made. Politicians ought not to be afraid of tackling this. The Senate should be elected by the people proportionally while maintaining a “floor” to uphold provincial and territorial rights. Provinces would receive a minimum of three seats and territories one, resulting in the following:

Yukon - 1

Northwest Territories - 1

Nunavut - 1

British Columbia - 13

Alberta - 11

Saskatchewan - 3

Manitoba - 4

Ontario - 37

Quebec - 22

New Brunswick - 3

Nova Scotia -3

Prince Edward Island - 3

Newfoundland and Labrador - 3

This aims to appease provincial desires to see regional representation in the Senate while maintaining proportionality. It is also pragmatic. Western and even Eastern alienation needs to be addressed, these region’s economies are different than Ontario and Quebec and ought to have meaningful representation.

Moreover, each province would have electoral districts and Senators would be elected through a plurality system (first-past-the-post). Senators would have long term limits and would be elected in a rotational pattern. Nine-year terms with elections every three years to elect a third of the Senate (32, 32, 31 out of the 105 total seats). Senators cannot be affiliated with a political party either. Instead, they would be independent and vetted by an independent, non-partisan organization.

A Purposeful Senate

These last details: long term limits, rotational elections, and non-partisan have a specific purpose. The Senate should be distinctive from the House of Commons. It should not be voted in and out along party lines with the House of Commons because then it would be redundant. Instead, long term limits allow the Senate to make decisions with the future in mind, rotational elections prevent a majority of Senators riding a large wave of support that may fade in a few months or years, and non-partisanship allows them to be elite decision-makers without an ideology to weigh them down.

This combination would shape the Senate into a legislative body that Canada’s future front and centre, are among the most knowledgeable and critical thinkers among us, and are voted for not because they below to a party, but rather that they bring ideas about the future of Canada that will make us better off for generations not years.

Institutional Potential

A reformed Senate should be one that is elected, effective, and critically, distinct from the House of Commons with a greater purpose that will enable Canada to be successful and better the lives of Canadians long into the future. It is an institution full of potential, we simply need the determination to reform it.


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