Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Dion's Articulate Response to Half-Assed Senate Reform

You know Stephane Dion is back in his game when he puts out this substantive argument against Harper's brand of half-assed Senate reform:

Stephen Harper’s Act would go against the interests of these two provinces.  Here’s why: practically speaking, an elected Upper Chamber would carry more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form; the problem is that both Western provinces are better represented in the House than they are in the Senate; and both provinces have only six Senators when some provinces have ten with a much smaller population.
Let’s look at the numbers.  Alberta has 9.1% of the total number of Members of Parliament but only 5.7% of the Senators.  The gap is even larger for British Columbia, with 11.7% of the Members in the House of Commons and only 5.7% in the Senate.  Compare with New Brunswick, which counts 10 Senators for a population 4.8 times smaller than Alberta’s and 6.1 times smaller than British Columbia’s.

This unbalanced distribution of Senate seats – an historical artefact – is a problem for the two Western provinces and an anomaly of our federation; Stephen Harper’s reform would make the situation much worse.  In the existing unelected Senate, this problem is mitigated by the fact that our Senators play their Constitutional role with moderation, letting the elected House of Commons have the final word most of the time.  But in an elected Senate, with Members able to invoke as much democratic legitimacy as their House counterparts – if not more, since they would represent provinces rather than ridings – the underrepresentation of British Columbia and Alberta would take its full scope and significance.
 That "full scope and significance" Dion mentions is the fact that the under-represented provinces would feel more inclined to be sticks in the mud because of their stature as "elected politicians" from an under-represented part of Canada, thereby conferring some sense of legitimacy coupled with victimization to create a very unholy scene.

Dion goes on to mention about the gridlock faced down south by their Senate - this part is fuzzy, considering that the US Senate is gridlocked because of its antiquated rules, while any elected Canadian Senate would likely not have the same. Nevermind the fact that our whips up here in Canada are a lot more vicious than down south. I'm not sure that gridlock would be a tremendous issue, except in an obvious case of a minority Senate.

But Dion strikes a note with me in thinking that the current piecemeal reform is more damaging to the interests of Senate reformers than it is helpful. It's symbolic but shambolic; it does nothing to heighten the actual legitimacy of the Upper Chamber, but gives a holier-than-thou attitude to those who do become elected. Elected, I might add, without the full participation of all parties. Look to past Senate elections in Alberta, and tell me when and where the Liberals or New Democrats show up.

In fact, look to the past Senate elections and tell me how that system of elections is proper for what is supposed to amount to regional representation. I'm a believer that if we do have an elected Senate, it needs to be a proportionally elected. Why? Because while I understand the idea behind constituency elected being first-past-the-post and can even sympathize with it, it doesn't make sense to elect Senators to represent an entire province's population with 35% of the vote. If we want to make the Senate regionally representative, we either create constituencies from regions (ie., Edmonton Region, Athabasca Region, Calgary Region, etc.) where we have FFTP, or we have a PR system that elects Senators on the basis of how many people voted for a specific party. For example, if Alberta had 10 Senators, using the 2011 results, that would mean the Conservatives get 7 Senators, the NDP get 2, and the Liberals get 1.

This seems a lot more fair and representative of the province to me than it is to have all 10 Senators as Conservatives. Just sayin'.


  1. I really like that last idea: In Defense Of The Worst Idea: Senate Reform And Proportional Representation (

  2. Very true, gracias for the article. You have an excellent blog my friend.