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Seeking A Reformed Senate for a Legitimate Legislative System

  Keeping, but reforming, the Senate is essential for Canadian democracy to improve. Meaningful democracy in Canada is hampered by the first-past-the-post electoral system and excessive party discipline. The former hampers the potential of elected representatives to meaningfully reflect ridings’ popular vote and harming voter turnout itself. [1] The latter inhibits elected representatives’ abilities to actually represent voters, for example with MP’s currently having what Paul Martin last year called the democracy undermining “choke collar” of the whip controlling all voting. [2] Though creating more legislative complexity than with the current sycophantic Senate role, a reformed, elected Senate also has the potential to address the undemocratic concentration of powers of the Prime Minister with a fused executive and legislature.

  The Senate should have elected members: eight from each province, four from each territory, with half being elected whenever there is a general election for MP’s and terms lasting through two Commons elections. This would provide a body of 92 members, with equal provincial representation, and lower yet still significant territorial representation. We should alter our electoral system so that in each Senatorial election, the four senatorial candidates who earn the highest number of votes should be considered elected, assuming each earns over 50% of votes cast. If less than four receive 50% of the vote, there should be other voting rounds with the remaining candidates until four elected. Representatives ought to be able to justify an electoral mandate in such a way.

  Like there ought to be in the House of Commons, there should be no whip in the Senate: party discipline should be diminished to increase the potential of individual Senators bringing more than a voting pulse to political issues either in a Burkean trustee role or delegate role, the role itself to be chosen by individual Senators themselves in the course of campaigning. The veto provisions in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord [3] of a joint sitting combined with less enforced party discipline/oppression (ideally in both houses) could resolved deadlocked issues and lead to more attempts at legislative consensus building.

  Abolishing the Senate is a tempting option [4] because its rubber-stamping function, while doing little to impede democracy in Canada, adds nothing but a great expense, not only in terms of money but the political legitimacy of our entire constitutionally-mandated bicameral legislative system in the eyes of citizens. If we are bicameral, not being functionally bicameral is far worse than removing the requirement of the second House from the constitution. But perhaps we could reform the House of Commons by eliminating the whip and electoral voting reform, which would improve the representative nature of our democracy considerably and justify removing the Senate. However, there is value in retaining the Senate because of one of its key original goals: protecting provincial interests with equal regional representation. It wouldn’t even be cynical to suggest that the central Canadian power block of Ontario and Quebec have maintained a weak Senate through partisan appointments from the prime minister so they could maintain control of the country from their power block in the Commons. The only hope of improved regional equity [5] lies in a legislatively empowered Senate where regions would weigh almost as much of the population-defined Commons. Maybe then someday a federal election might not be over before Manitoba’s polls close.


[1]  Ontario’s Redeemer University College political science professor David Kayzis commented on proportional representation’s ability to improve voter turnout. See Elizabeth Payne, “Dropping voter turnout alarms political observers,” Ottawa Citizen, September 18, 2003, p. A.6.
[2]  See David Rider, “Martin outlines House reforms: Demands end to ‘choke collar,’” Calgary Herald, October 22, 2202, p. A.5 where almost a year ago Martin offered reforms for improving House democracy with a system like Britain’s “Three-Line Whip”  that may or may not be enacted in his future as likely the next prime minister.
[3]  See P.J. Smith, Law, Politics, and the Administration of Justice: Canadian Cases, Comparative Perspectives, (Vancouver: Pacific Policy Sciences, Inc., 1999), p. 42.
[4]  See Jonathan Carson, “Abolition best option for useless Senate,” Calgary Herald, September 5, 1998, p. J.5, where he presents many sources of Senate irrelevance in arguing why the finance-conscious Reform Party ought to support Senate abolition rather than Senate Reform.
[5]  The 82nd item of the Canadian Alliance’s Declaration of Policy supports the importance of regional representation in the Senate over the easier, cheaper solution of Senate abolition: http://www.canadianalliance.ca/english/policy/index.asp (viewed October 2, 2003) while the federal Liberal Party, for instance, is silent on Senate reform in their Liberal Plan of 2000: Opportunity for All: The Liberal Plan for the Future of Canada, (Liberal Party of Canada, Ottawa, 2000) available at (viewed October 2, 2003).

Stephen Buckley
Copyright 2003

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