02 March 2011

Senate reform . . . again?

Canadians have argued about our Parliament's upper chamber for nearly as long as it has existed. What place does an unelected Senate have in a constitutional democracy? New Democratic Party leader Jack Layton has made his own proposal: Layton proposes referendum on Senate. He wants to see it abolished. However, Lorne Gunter strongly disagrees: Disbanding the Senate would outrage the west. Canada is nearly unique amongst the world's federal systems in lacking an upper chamber effectively representing its component members, which makes our system rather unbalanced. By contrast, the United States Senate represents the individual states by giving each of them two members. The Australian Senate give each of the 6 states 12 members serving six-year terms.

However, if we were to abolish our Senate, our system would be even more unbalanced than it is at present. Over the decades our governments have attempted to compensate for this flaw by holding first ministers conferences, which are typically held annually but whose frequency has declined over the past ten years. Due to this lack of frequency and other factors, the first ministers conference has not adequately filled the gap in our constitutional framework. Rather than abolish the Senate, which would only exacerbate the historic tensions between central Canada and the rest of the country, we would do better to reform the Senate to make it more genuinely representative, especially of those living outside Ontario and Québec.

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