Current political, ethical and legal controversies present an unprecedented opportunity for Canadians to reform and improve our bicameral Parliamentary governance. The long-standing popular apathy to our Senate has evolved into greater awareness and concern. Issues related to ethics, expenses, allowances and representation qualifications can be addressed through clarification and greater administrative rigour – making clear, fair and comprehensive rules and regulations.
Substantive Senate reform initiatives are, however, quite controversial and are highly unlikely to generate consensus or agreement, issues such as geographic distribution of Senate seats, proportionate provincial membership, representation of First Peoples, municipalities and other demographic groups to mention just a few. But there is one issue that could well generate consensus or even agreement – who gets to be a Senator and how they get there.
The Supreme Court has clarified that how we choose Senators would clearly be subject to constitutional agreement. There seems to be an assumption that constitutional amendment is a bad thing based, largely, on perceptions of past experiences with constitutional negotiations, but is that really an impediment? Is it possible that past constitutional discussions failed because:
– there were flaws in past proposals and no real consensus developed;
– past proposals were too comprehensive, dealt with too many Senate issues and even issues not related to Senate reform, with no single specific, clearly defined initiatives articulated; and
– past participants focused on Senate reform as part of political or ideological wheeling, dealing and self-interest rather than as an end in itself?
In light of recent controversies, the average Canadian could be forgiven for seeing the Senate as an institution that has sealed its own fate. In reality, the Senate has shown itself in many cases to be the more thorough, insightful and progressive house of Parliament. Through influential committee reports alone, the Senate has contributed a thoughtful and socially conscious discourse to an otherwise hyper-partisan parliamentary system. Consider:
In from the Margins: A Call to Action on Poverty Housing and Homelessness (2009)
The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology
Cannabis: Our Position for a Canadian Public Policy (2002)
The Senate Special Committee on Illegal Drugs
Of Life and Death (1995)
The Special Senate Committee on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
Urban Aboriginal Youth: An Action Plan for Change (2003)
The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples
Out From the Shadows at Last: Transforming Mental Health, Mental Illness and Addiction Services in Canada (2006)
The Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology
These reports and many others provide a glimpse into the Senate’s unique ability to address controversial subjects such as guaranteed annual income, the reform of our mental healthcare system and our policies surrounding illegal drugs. Just as much as the Senate is affected by an over-awareness of its flaws, it is equally suffering from an under-awareness of its successes, many of which are morally, ethically and ideologically in line with the views of those who would see it abolished.
It’s time to challenge some of these assumptions of frustration and take a constructive and serious approach to Senate reform one step at a time. Politicians, pollsters, journalists and pundits tell us that Canadians don’t want constitutional discussions. Do we really know that? We haven’t had specific single Senate reform constitutional proposals. Yet starting the reform process presents immense opportunity to create change with an effective and ethical public initiative. Perhaps, if the Senate can reach the low hanging fruits of reform, it will be better able to make its case for survival, enable more meaningful reforms, and sway public opinion based on merit rather than Machiavellian politics.
First, let’s consider partisanship. Try to imagine a thoughtful, insightful intelligent individual with expertise and interest in public policy who has not developed some degree of partisan political adherence along the way. Our democratic system, expressed through political parties, is based on partisanship. So we can dispose of any naïve search for non-partisan Senators. It is, however, entirely realistic to seek Senators who can rise above strictly partisan sentiments and doctrines to consider public policy through professional objectivity and the ‘public interest’.
Leaving administrative accountability and ethical concerns that can be addressed outside constitutional discussion aside, could we come up with a specific proposal that might present some consensus for how we comprise our Senate? Here’s an idea:
Comprise the Senate democratically through a different kind of electoral representation than the House of Commons first-past-the-post structure: through popular vote representation by province.
We could maintain the present regional structure of the 105 Senate seats, at least for now, to preserve present provincial representation and avoid controversy on a volatile and divisive subject. That issue is embedded in the composition of our federation and could be dealt with at another time.
Consider the following example:
The province of “Utopia” has 10 Senate seats. In the 2020 federal election, the provincial popular vote share, and, consequently, number of Senate seats is:
Middle Party 27% – 3 seats
Right Party 22% – 2 seats
Left Party 21% – 2 seat
Environment Party 11% – 1 seat
Abolitionist Party 9% – 1 seat – vacant (no candidates presented)
Separatist Party 6% – 1 seat
Religious Party 4% – no seat
For every federal election, each federally registered political party in each province that wishes to elect Senators (a party that espouses Senate abolition may decide not to nominate candidates) publicly nominates, through their political convention (as opposed to direct appointment by party leadership) a pro-rated, ranked list of Senators for the number of seats allocated to their province when the writ falls. Savvy and successful political parties will nominate candidates for the Senate to attract votes from the electorate, taking into account factors such as profession, qualifications, education, gender, Aboriginal representation, LGBTQ representation, language, minority representation and other desirable factors.
Senators will be selected from these lists according to the percentage share of popular vote for each party in that election, based on a minimum of 5% of the vote, and on their position on party nomination lists. Senators in each party vote to elect their own Leader in the Senate (rather than being appointed by the party leader) providing an element of greater autonomy for the Senate and meaningful empowerment of the Senate to reform and govern itself without constitutional change.
Based on this proposal, the Prime Minister could consult with the Premiers, Territorial, Aboriginal and Municipal leaders, or the Government of Canada could establish a Special Committee for public consultation specifically on this proposal, as opposed to many other Senate reform issues, develop a limited constructive constitutional proposal and proceed with a single, simple, popular amendment. Perhaps the next government could consult on the proposal during their first term of office then place the question on a referendum as part of the next election if a consensus among provincial leaders is not achieved.
This proposal would add another dynamic to citizens’ consideration of why they vote for a candidate for the House of Commons. A party’s nomination list for the Senate would simply be added to many other factors citizens consider when voting, from family tradition to party leader political platform, single issue, religious adherence, local candidate etc.
Popular vote representation would result in a Senate where a majority for any individual party would be highly unlikely. The benefits of that could be further discouragement of partisanship, enhancement of ‘sober second thought’, and avoiding “tyranny of the majority”. It would also produce a representative house responsible to the electorate that would have different political dynamics from the House of Commons, thus avoiding direct political or governance competition between the two houses of our bicameral Parliament due to their differing political composition.
A Senator could serve multiple consecutive terms, depending on the party’s ranking of individual candidates on their Senate candidate ballot, for instance by their name being placed high on their list in consecutive elections. This could present advantages, such as continuity and preserved ‘corporate memory’, or disadvantages, such as patronage abuse; however, candidate nomination would be public, transparent and accountable so the voter decides.
This proposal is a genuine leaping-off point for substantial discussion, consensus and change. We can reform the Senate incrementally, leaving aside more contentious issues to be dealt with once we have established some success, but we can also make a simple but substantial improvement that could find broad approval and can stand alone as a worthwhile improvement on its own merit.
David Newman is an editor, writer and consultant on communications, public policy and procurement who has been an advisor to a wide variety of Senate Committees, including the Special Committee on Senate Reform. Alexander Newman is a student and communications practitioner with a keen interest in public policy who has experienced extensive work terms at the Senate and Policy Horizons. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.