The Senate expense scandal has placed the upper chamber in the political spotlight, which it rarely occupies. Unfortunately, however, controversy regarding improper expense claims, although deserving of full attention, overshadows an important discussion Canada needs to have: Senate reform.
Conceived with the noblest of intentions, the Canadian Senate serves as a forum for ‘sober second thought’ removed from the popular interests that dominate the House of Commons. At present, however, partisanship riddles the upper-chamber, which has become ineffective and unaccountable. This, in conjunction with the current controversies, has led many observers to rally for its abolition.
Abolishing the upper-chamber is a poor alternative that would damage intrastate federalism and remove balanced representation from the Canadian federation. Should the Senate operate as an elected chamber, however, it could continue serving a vital role.
Intrastate federalism is the idea that provinces, cantons, or regions should receive formal representation at the federal level. Similarly, balanced representation is the notion that representation should be equal among all provinces. Most federations, such as the United States and Australia, employ some form of intrastate federalism and balanced representation. Canada, for instance, achieves intrastate federalism and balanced representation through the Senate such that each ‘region’ has twenty-four seats.
In the Canadian Senate, lesser-populated provinces receive a greater distribution of seats to balance their representative against provinces with larger populations and, thus, greater representation in the House of Common, such as Ontario and Quebec. An elected Senate, therefore, is particularly important for Atlantic Canada, which possesses 30/105 seats (28.5 per cent of the Senate representing 6.95 per cent of the country’s population).
The Senate’s current structure, however, does not facilitate balanced representation, as it lacks legitimacy.
If each province’s electorate, for instance, chose Senators or if the provincial legislature appointed them, the upper-chamber would achieve greater legitimacy. These reforms would re-establish Senators as representatives of the provinces and their constituents, rather than partisan Prime Ministerial appointments. With this newfound legitimacy, the Senate could perform legislative functions with real merit, as opposed to acting as a ‘rubber stamp,’ which it currently does.
There are, however, two common criticisms of an elected Senate.
The first is that an elected Senate, such as the United States’ Senate, is more likely to create gridlock in Parliament. Nevertheless, the Senate’s constitutional function is to provide a check on majority governments in the House of Commons. This could also change the nature of debate within the House of Commons, since a truly representative Senate would compel Members of Parliament evaluate legislation with additional rigor before submitting to the upper-chamber.
The second criticism is that constitutional reform is difficult to achieve. While this is true, the Senate’s current state is unacceptable and inaction will only perpetuate the status-quo.
Ultimately, the Senate continues to serve an important role in the Canadian legislative process. The Canadian political system depends on its ability to achieve intrastate federalism and balanced representation, both of which would suffer were it abolished. Reforming the Senate, as a result, is a conversation Canadians need desperately to have, regardless of its difficulties.
Randy Kaye is a 2013-2014 Atlantic Institute for Market Studies’ Student Fellow. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the Institute