Saturday, June 30, 2012

Senate Reform, Selection Options

Senate Reform is an issue that seems to pop up every 10 or so months, stay in the news for about half a week, and vanish. Usually when in the headlines, a particular kind of Senate Reform is being talked about - almost never the same as the one that was talked about 10 months prior - and people discuss that particular proposal.

I'd like to take this opportunity, when Senate Reform is not in the headlines, to examine some of it's possibilities. There are three main things to consider when talking about Senate Reform.

First, is powers. As it stands the Senate is a rather strong chamber but toothless on constitutional issues. This is not a discussion that you can have without examining changes to the other two areas of Senate Reform.

Second, is seat distribution. Anyone who has followed me in the past will know that this is normally where I focus my attention. Alberta and BC, for example, have a total of 12 Senators, while New Brunswick, on it's own, has 10. I am however not going to focus on this today either, rather my focus is on the third issue.

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, is the method of selecting Senators. Included within this are possible amendments to the term which a Senator can serve.

Lets examine selection as it currently is. As the senate currently stands, the Prime Minister (through the Monarch) can appoint Senators at will. There is a maximum number of Senators from each province and Territory, and each Senator must have certain qualifications (minimum age, property ownership, etc) but beyond this, the Prime Minister can appoint any Senator that qualifies. This person will then serve until they resign, pass away, or retire at age 75.

Before I get into discussion of different methods I want to get a few terms out of the way. Appointments for life, or, for a set term, are in short, the same. The only "difference" is the end of the "term" is with the death of the individual in question. The main alternative of this is to serve at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, or other individual. Serving at someone's pleasure means if they are displeased, they can fire you. I'll be noting pleasure VS term differences in discussion.

Term limited
The first proposal is to make a minor change to the Senate. The Prime Minister would still appoint all the Senators, but now they would have a term that only lasts a few years. 6, 8, and 12 years have all been tossed around as suggested term lengths. The major problem with this proposal is it only makes our current situation worse and does little to actually respond to the demands of those who call for Senate Reform.

Have the Premiers do it
Another change that has been proposed is to have the Premiers of the provinces appoint senators. There are two ways this can be done, either at Pleasure, or for a Term. There are problems with the former. Senators serving at Pleasure can be made to partake in shenanigans designed to disrupt the Senate. NDP and PQ Senators appointed in such a manner may purposefully cause trouble with the objective of having the Senate destroyed. Having Premiers appoint Senators for life would be only a minor change. So, what would such a senate look like? Presuming the BC Liberals would share their appointments between Libs and Cons, the PLQ appoints 4 Tories, and, the NDP and PQ would not appoint anyone, party standings might look like this:
V=5 (Vacancies)

Have Parliament do it
This is similar to how things are now, except this would allow opposition members in to the senate. In effect, allow the Leader of the Opposition and/or the other opposition leaders to appoint Senators. This option has similar problems to the current method, allowing a few opposition Senators in to the mix will not cause great change.

Elect them
This option has many sub-options, as the question of "how" to elect them comes up. Also the question of a set term comes up, or to have them serve to retirement.

Block Vote
This is the method currently used to elect Senators in Alberta. In effect, voters are given as many votes as there are vacant positions, and, the vote is FPTP. Normally under a Block Vote, whomever wins the most votes, wins all of the seats. A Block Vote based on the 2011 federal election would have resulted 99 Conservatives elected. While this would give the Senate some democratic credibility, in general, it's elections would mirror those to the House to such an extent as to be nearly useless in practise. The only difference would be caused by the distribution of seats, which disfavours the West, and would thus only cause more trouble of a regional nature.

This would result in Senate Elections similar to what they have in Australia. Since Ontario has shown willingness to vote for the "Western based" Conservatives, it would cause less of a problem than the Block Vote, where the Liberals could otherwise sweep that province. A STV vote based on the last election would result in (apx) 70 Tories and 35 Liberals elected (presuming the Liberals would have run)

Proportional Representation
Ideas to elect the Senate based on a national PR list is not new. Greece uses a convoluted system that results in their assembly being elected based on a national PR scheme despite each province being allotted a certain number of members. We could certainly adopt a similar system. Such a Senate would have resulted in 66 Tories, 32 Liberals, and 7 Greens. Had the NDP and Bloc run candidates of some sort, the result would have been 42 Tories, 32 NDP, 20 Liberal, 6 BQ, and 4 Green.

Quebec already has Senate ridings. They were drawn in the 1840's and have not been altered since. No such map of these ridings exists. Ask your Senator, or the Senate, or the Atlas of Canada. Nobody has any map of these ridings. Nobody, that is, except for me! Might sound like boasting, and it is - but it is justified in that I've challenged others to prove me wrong; to find another map, and no such map exists. Regardless, here it is: As you can see, the populations of each of these ridings is so far from equal it is unlikely that these ridings would be used in any real Senate election. Other provinces have no such Senate ridings, but would have to draw them up. One can presume that, given the last election, the Tories would have managed to win every prairie Senate riding, and nearly every one in BC; though one could be won by the opposition. The opposition would have likely won 23 seats in Quebec. This puts the two equal at 24-24. In the Atlantic, there are only two additional house ridings than Senate ridings. One, in NL, would likely be Tory, and one in NS Liberal, meaning that the each side would be down two seats. This would put the Government at 37 and the Opposition at 41. The Government would sweep the Territories, and Ontario would likely only yield 6 opposition Senators, putting the final total at 47 for the Opposition, and 58 for the Government.

Other Options
While there are other types of election method, and other proposals that, in short, mix and match the proposals outlined above, there are few alternative proposals out there that do not take one of those options in to account. However, I've come to know of one that comes, of all places, from the satirical Rhino Party.

Sortition, or the 'drawing of lots' is something the Rhino Party, by side-effect, proposed. In short, the Rhino party proposed that those who win the Lottery would also win a seat in the Senate. I actually think this is a great idea, but, with one minor change. A few years ago, when discussing electoral reform, both Ontario and British Columbia decided to allow random citizens to make the decision and discuss the issues. I actually think this is a good idea, if done properly, and my personal preference is to apply this to the Senate. No more political hacks, but rather, each senate seat would be given to a random citizen on the electoral rolls to hold for 5 years at a time. This would give people time to adjust to the operations of the Senate and by the end of their term, master it, and thus, teach new members. With one fifth of the Senate being new citizens each year, the Senate would retain it's connection to the people.


  1. If Sortition is to be done, I would suggest changes to seat distribution. In short, 3 times more, but with some changes.

    First, keep in mind that Quebec would not wish to lose any seats, and would be very pleased to gain more. To get them to buy into Reform, it'd be easier to grease the wheels of politics by offering them more seats... (cont)

  2. NL-10
    This would give you 233 Senators.
    I'd also suggest 10 Senators for First Nations, from any province.
    Of the 243 Senators, Quebec has 31%, which is an improvement over the 23% they have at current. This is also a minimum as some of the First Nations Senators would likely be from Quebec.

  3. Every year, a province would select 1, 2, 5, 10, or 15 Senators at random.

    For picking Senators, I'd recommend that only people on the Electoral Rolls be eligible. People would be allowed to opt-out of the option of serving on the Senate. 10,000 names would be drawn each summer, and would be mailed a document asking if they are willing to serve, and able to do so. In late November the returned letters would be put into a bin and one name will be drawn to serve. Also drawn will be 4 additional names, and if the one picked refuses to serve, dies in office, or resigns early, they will have the honour of finishing out the term.

    Anyone who serves in the Senate will be prohibited for running for office at any level for their term, and, for 5 years following.

    1. That is 10,000 names per seat. IE Ontario would draw 100,000 names.

  4. I assume you meant "As the senate currently stands, the Prime Minister (through the Monarch) …" rather than "As the senate currently stands, the Prime Minister (though the Monarch) …". The later would seem to concur with our current PM does, that the position of PM IS as a Monarch.

    1. You are correct, and I've fixed the error. Good eye, and thanks for letting me know! :)

  5. If the NDP win the majority next election, I hope they stop appointing senators altogether, do everything in their power to discredit the very idea of second house and when the timing is right call a referendum asking people whether they want to keep the senate or abolish it.

    1. Even after a decade, there'd still be enough Senators to pass by. The NDP would need to win 3 governments in a row to starve the Senate to extinction.

  6. To those who support abolition:
    I point out that there are very very few Federations out there without a second house. Part of the reason is the very nature of a federation like our own almost requires one.

    Lets look at places that abolished their upper house:
    Estonia, New Zealand, Croatia, Denmark, Greece, Hungary, Peru, Portugal, Sweden, Turkey, Venezuela. All countries that do not face the federation-based challenges that we do.

    Compare this to countries that do face our challenges:
    USA, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Germany, Indonesia, India, Italy, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, South Africa, Spain, and the UK.

    The only countries that face our challenges that do not have an upper house are Iraq, Iran, (both have quashed seppie movements) the UAE (with extremly powerful "provinces") and Communist China.

    Any referendum on abolishing the Senate would result in Ontario voting Yes (to abolishing it) heavily. Manitoba, Saskatchewan, NB, NS, and NL voting about half-half, and PEI, Alberta, and BC voting very strongly no. Federalists in Quebec would vote no, because they know a properly-run senate is the only thing that can save Canada in the long term, and Separatists would vote yes, because they know a properly-run senate is the only thing that can save Canada in the long term.

    1. 1) Canada is already a de facto unicameral state -- just ask the supporters of a Triple E senate. After all, one can not argue on the one hand that the current senate is undemocratic and so contributes to the "democratic deficit" and on the other hand argue that the senate is “ineffective”. A body that adds nothing to the genuinely "effective" process can not take away anything either.

      Constitutionally senators have all kinds of power and every once in a blue moon the Senate has stalled major pieces of legislation (e.g., free trade and the GST). However the aforementioned instances of stalling are so rare they are the exceptions that prove just how "ineffective" the senate truly is. Moreover, no senate I can think of has pursued a legislative agenda of its own accord; opposing legislation is one thing; purposing legislation is quite another. The reason the senate is not an "effective" body is that senators are not elected and as such lack legitimacy. Furthermore, senators are members of legitimate federal political parties and the parties that they belong to are loath to have their unelected members exercise real authority least their actions undermine the party. Finally, the fact that it is the ruling federal party and not, say, provincial governments that appoint senators defines a clear pecking order, with the Senate answerable to the House.

      Just an aside, BC, PEI, Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Manitoba all had Legislative Councils and all abolished them.

      2) Yes one of the main reasons the US and Canada decided upon a second house was because various smaller States and Provinces wanted their interests protected before agreeing to form a Federation. For example, the Southern States wanted to make sure the Northern States, were most Americans lived, would not be able to abolish slavery. Another reason is that elites in both countries figured that a second house was needed as a bulwark against democratic excesses of the "commoners". It was an "elitist check".

      Neither is reason why Canada should follow the US lead in transforming the senate into effective and elected body. The Federal government is not particularly powerful, the less populated provinces are already vastly overrepresented in the House of Commons and simply by virtue of having provincial jurisdiction and provincial representation people living in Canada’s less populated provinces already have a means of leveraging far more attention and support from the Federal government than their numbers warrant. Danny Williams had the government's attention in ways that the mayors of Surrey, Red Deer, Brant, Fredericton and Churchill did not even though we are talking about equal number of seats in both cases. Above all else people who say that a second house is needed to protect the interests of Canada's smaller provinces end up treated provinces like people. One person one vote is bedrock principle of any democracy; one province one senate vote is something else entirely. People, not provinces, deserve equal representation. A province is no more or less than the people that make up that province. Giving the 140, 204 in PEI the power to determine everything under provincial jurisdiction, provincial representation and 4 MPs well all the while giving the 228,997 residents of Oak Ridge Markham one MP is bad enough as it is. Piling on and giving the 140, 204 people in PEI the same number of “effective” senators, as per the American Triple E Senate model, as 12,851, 821 Ontarians is beyond stupid and grossly undemocratic. Equally silly is having one "effective" Senator for every 75,117 New Brunswick residents (10 senators in total) versus one Senator for every 7,333,43 BC residents (6 senators in total). And that is what the current configuration gives us.

  7. First, change parliament so it is elected using a form of proportional representation. Then, abolish the Senate.

  8. I like the random selection of Canadian citizens idea. My perfect Senate would be full of people who have contributed something to Canada to sit for a limited term. People who represent the arts, science, education, and innovative technology are missing from both houses of parliament. They would be my first choice for Senate seats.

    I would prefer not to abolish the Senate as that would upset the intended balance of our system of government, but to change it.

    1. I actually want the opposite of people who contribute. I want that 20-something single mother with two kids and a 3rd on the way who does not know weather London or Paris is in Spain or not. I want that construction worker who uses a profane word 1.25 times per sentence he speaks. I want that 90 year old man who complains about everything to anyone who will listen. Why? Because this is who we really are. Canada is not a nation of perfect people, we are a nation of real people, some of whom are rotten, disgusting, failures, and it's about time that we gave them a voice.


    1. There is one of the 24 divisions... find the other 23 :P

  10. I tried making a Quebec Senate division map after reading their boundary descriptions, but I never published it, because it was only rough. I don't think it's accurate to include any of northern Quebec in any of the divisions since it wasn't part of the province in the 1840s.