Notes from a Byzantine-Rite Calvinist

22 March 2010

The Senate: better than we think?

It often seems that Canadians generally dislike the Senate but cannot agree on what should be done with it. It is an appointive body, intended by the Fathers of Confederation to be a "chamber of sober second thought." Westerners would like to see an elected upper chamber, while Québécois and New Democrats generally prefer to see it abolished, much as the provinces abolished their own upper chambers decades ago. Alan Broadbent, Chairman and CEO of the Avana Capital Corporation, disagrees: The Better Chamber: A Defence of the Senate. Here's an excerpt:
The Senate record of useful investigations is impressive. Senator David Croll chaired two critical investigations, on Aging in 1966 and on Poverty in Canada in 1971. The Poverty report became a signal document internationally. In 1970, Senator Keith Davey chaired an investigation on concentration in the media, which has been revisited by the Senate several times since. The Standing Committee on Banking, Trade, and Commerce has studied Canada’s financial institutions regularly since the 1980s, contributing much to the stability of our banking system, which has stood out in the last two years. . . . Almost all of these reports have been of high quality, and their recommendations have often created key building blocks for Canada. In this regard, the Senate has completely outperformed the House of Commons for decades.

Broadbent may not persuade the sceptics, but I personally hope it takes some of the steam out of the efforts of the abolitionists.




  • I'd prefer to keep the Senate and reform it rather than abolish it. But in order to make enough sensible reforms, I think it would be nearly impossible to get the required support from all of the right places.

    For example, the distribution of the seats in the Senate are absurd. Newfoundland and Labrador has 6 seats, which is the same number of seats as each of the Western Provinces, despite each of them having 2 to 8 times the population. Meanwhile, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are both smaller than any of the Western Provinces in terms of either area or population, yet they have 10 Senators each. This makes no sense. Smaller provinces should not have more senators than larger ones.

    So in order to reform the Senate so that the seats were better distributed, some provinces would have to lose seats. Which provinces would lose and which would gain would depend on the manner in which the seats are to be redistributed. If it's an equal senate (10 senators per province), Ontario and Quebec would lose 14 Senators each, almost 60% of them, yet together those provinces hold 50% of the population. If you distribute them proportionally to population, Ontario would get almost 40% of the seats, Alberta and BC would gain, Quebec would stay about the same, and the other provinces would lose anywhere from 2 to 8 of their seats, which would make it hard, or nearly impossible, to get enough support from the legislatures of the respective provinces.

    There are various schemes that fall somewhere in between rep. by pop. and equal, such as Germany's, but I think all would cause too many people or too many provinces (or both) to feel that they are losing too many senators, making it hard to sell any of those schemes to enough of the population and legislatures to get them to pass.

    And so, I tend towards abolition, because the current scheme is senseless in many ways (as are the rules governing the distribution of seats in the House of Commons, which I also think should be reformed, though not as much), but reform seems impossible.

    My impression of the NDP position is that they don't like the fact that members are appointed, yet one of the desired reforms is making it an elected body. One wonders why the proposal to make it an elected body doesn't entice them to at least consider changing their mind.

    Quebec, on the other hand, is against democratizing the senate out of fear that it would become to politicized and partisan (citing the United States Senate as an example). I can sympathize with this position, although I think there are ways that the non-partisan (or less-partisan) nature of the Senate could be maintained while still making it more democratically legitimate.

    On average, though, I think Canadians are too small minded or simply not interested enough for anything meaningful to happen. Not enough people, politicians among them, are willing to give up what they feel they're entitled to for the sake of building something that's more sensible. Even McGuinty, leading Canada's largest province, said that he favours abolition because he thinks Ontario doesn't have enough seats in the current distribution. I think that's typical of the small mindedness of Canadians. These comments also indicate that he's not aware that upper chambers are frequently less representative than the lower chambers and that this is seen as a feature, not a bug, so he's probably not interested enough in the problem either.

    If I recall correctly, the last opinion poll I heard on the matter suggested that Canadians who want to keep it the way it is or to reform it are in the majority, while those who want to abolish it are in the minority (and of course there are many who have no opinion). So it may some day happen if people like Broadbent can make persuasive arguments and get them widely distributed.

    By Blogger Randy, at 11:18 PM  

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