What “Real Change” in the Senate should look like

It’s one of the impossible issues for a Canadian Prime Minister.  Everybody knows Canada’s Senate is broken but when it takes seven out of ten provinces to amend the Constitution, the issue becomes a hot potato.

The NDP wants to abolish it, as did the Conservatives in 2006, before they gave up on it.  Actually abolishing the Senate requires unanimous consent from all ten provinces, however, which is next to impossible to obtain.  I actually think there is a role an Upper House can play in a parliamentary democracy… but not without amending the Constitution.

First, let’s review what happened last week.  On the new Parliament’s opening day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau proposed to implement the Liberal Party’s election policy on the Senate: avoid it like the plague.  Quite quickly, he was called out by BC Premier Christie Clark on the fact that this barely qualified as “reform” and certainly not as “real change”.  The two tweaks proposed were:

  1. He will ask other people for help in choosing who gets appointed.
  2. He will not let the Senators, old or new, sit in his party’s caucus.

One can understand the political logic behind trying to distance yourself from high-visibility personalities who have few accountability measures placed on them (and absolving yourself of responsibility for their conduct).  Stephen Harper’s Senate appointees caused him much embarassment, arguably playing a role in removing him from 24 Sussex Dr.  It is disingenuous, however, to tell Canadians that the solution is to remove the tenuous accountability measure that did exist: to their party leader.

In Canada, Senators, once appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister, keep their seat until age 75.  They never need to face the public in an election.  The system is a remnant from colonial times to secure the privileges of the upper class, giving them a veto in case the commoners tried anything too drastic.  A telling feature is the requirement to own property to be eligible for appointment.  Many of the provinces also had Upper Houses but they were all abolished as unnecessary many decades ago.

Around the world, where there are bicameral legislatures (two Houses of Parliament), the Upper House does tend to imply a collection of more experienced elder statesmen who can bring a perspective that may be absent among the winners of the local election races that make up the Lower House.  In the US, Senators were appointed by state legislatures (for six year terms) until the 17th Amendment came into effect about 100 years ago.  Now, they are chosen by statewide popular elections.

What might a better system for Canada look like?  People like having a local representative that they can contact, whose office is within a drivable distance, whose phone number is not long distance, who understands the needs and mindset of their community.  For that reason, we have electoral districts which elect MPs to the House of Commons.  However, this arrangement tends to favour a two-party system (a phenomenon nerds like me call Duverger’s Law), which makes it more difficult for like-minded individuals from across the country to push issues overlooked by the main parties.  If they don’t have a sufficient concentration in any one riding, they may be completely shut out of Parliament.  Also, parties who get less than 50% of the total vote may end up getting majority governments without the consent of the majority of the people.

To address this issue, varying groups (usually supporters of smaller parties) call for more proportional representation, which assigns seats in accordance with total vote results beyond a single-member constituency.  The actual formulas and systems of proportional representation proposed vary widely.  You can check some of them out at www.fairvote.ca.

The Manougian Model, however, proposes something new.  At every general election, allow voters to cast two ballots.  One is a preferential ballot for their local MP, which I discussed in my last post.  The second would be a vote for the Senate, where they vote for one party. Ahead of the election, the party will make public a ranked list of candidates for Senate seats.  The intention is for these candidates to be accomplished in a field of importance to federal decision-making.  The total number of votes that a party obtains nation-wide in the Senate election would be tallied.  That absolute number would then be divided by a quotient, ignoring the remainder, to decide how many Senate seats they will get (assigned to individuals in the previously identified order).

What is the quotient?  It is a number chosen such that a typical voter turnout would result in a desirable number of total Senators  (there are currently 105 seats).  Note that it is the absolute number of votes that matters, not the percentage share that is used in many other proportional systems.  The effect would be that a lower voter turnout would result in fewer individuals sitting in the Red Chamber.  It adds an incentive to each voter to perform their electoral duty even if they are confident that their party will win.  It provides a clear incentive to parties to motivate their base.

Ultimately, it provides a much needed check and balance to a Prime Minister who has a majority in the House of Commons obtained without a majority of the popular vote.

Our colonial past officially ended in 1982 when Canada earned the right to change its own Constitution without Britain’s involvement.  Let’s roll up our sleeves and truly make it ours.  Now that‘s real change.

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