The Senate Election that Refuses to Die

Map of Canadian Senate Divisions

Map of Canadian Senate Divisions

Three months ago, I wrote a post warning of coming Senate elections here in British Columbia. Now it seems that the private member’s bill providing for such elections, despite Premier Christy Clark’s support, will not be making it through the sausage factory any time soon.

Reason to celebrate? Unfortunately, no. Not to be deterred, our Premier assures us that an election to replace retiring Senator Gerry St. Germain will go ahead as planned without either enabling legislation or any of that pesky public scrutiny and debate that go along with it.

I explained three months ago my opposition to an elected Senate — that it merely papers over the injustice of a fundamentally undemocratic system of representation, and effectively discards the principle of one-person-one-vote. Far better to simply abolish the outdated institution and look elsewhere for checks and balances. Yet despite the far-reaching influence that my mother assures me my blog posts ought to have, there remains a persistent myth that Canada needs a Senate in one form or another to represent regional interests. It is no coincidence that all federations have bicameral legislatures, this line of reasoning goes.

Compelling, but not quite true. The world contains twenty-four federations, and fully five of them (Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Comoros, Micronesia, and St. Kitts and Nevis) have unicameral legislatures. Admittedly, this is a small percentage, and pales in comparison to the majority of unitary states with no upper houses. In other words, despite this sprinkling of exceptions, it seems that federalism and bicameralism do indeed tend to go hand in hand.

So let us examine the connections. First of all, is it right for the provinces to be given representation in one of the houses of the Parliament of Canada? I don’t see why. The proper agents for provincial interests are provincial governments, not federal lawmakers. If the provinces are represented in the Senate, then shouldn’t the feds, by the same logic, be represented in a second chamber of the provincial legislatures? Or if the goal is to asymmetrically increase the influence of the provinces (not an entirely unreasonable goal), then would it not be more effectively and transparently achieved by means of a simple devolution of powers?

Second, even if it were right to preserve provincial representation at the federal level, the Canadian Senate does not do this. As an appointed body, it merely serves the interests of the ruling federal party and its loyal hacks. Were Christy Clark and Stephen Harper to have their way and make the Senate an elected body, by contrast, its members would then be selected by the same people who select members of the House of Commons — i.e. Canadian voters — only their influence in certain parts of the country would be wildly and arbitrarily out of proportion to their numbers. At most, this would mean that the power of some provinces would be increased vis-a-vis other provinces, not that the power of the provinces in general would be increased vis-a-vis the feds. The only way to accomplish the latter goal through Senate reform would be to allow provincial governments to appoint Senators (the German model), and virtually no one in Canada argues for that.

So please heed my warnings, anonymous blog surfers! Senate elections, whether in BC or elsewhere in the country, will do no good, and to the extent that they legitimize an irreparably flawed institution, may do considerable harm. Let us just abolish the blasted thing and be done with it.

Red Chamber Blues

The Senate

BC Premier Christy Clark took a break from bullying teachers yesterday to back the idea of elections to Canada’s Senate. If the private member’s bill introduced by Liberal John Les passes through the Legislature, which with the Premier’s support it almost certainly will, British Columbians could wind up voting this fall on the replacement for retiring Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain.

The problem with Senate reform is that it places a veneer of legitimacy over what is a fundamentally unjust institution. Elected or appointed, the Canadian Senate will always be based on the formula of representation by region or province rather than representation by population, and thus will violate the cardinal democratic principle of one-person-one-vote. Yes, the status quo where we hand a veto over all our legislation to a body of basically lifetime patronage appointees is wrong, but that doesn’t make any and every change right. Senate elections will resurrect the chamber’s tattered image, and embolden it to challenge more bills passed by the House of Commons. Short of abolition, I would rather have an appointed but mostly ineffective unjust institution than an elected and effective one.

But isn’t a strongly bicameral legislature an important check on government power? I would say that the checker must be at least as democratic as the checkee. If, however, we as a society judge a second house of Parliament to be vital to our system of government, then perhaps we can consider other forms of a more participatory nature. Both BC and Ontario have in the recent past made use of citizens’ assemblies to examine options for electoral reform. Why not set up such a body on the federal level — not just to deal with a single issue but as a permanent feature of our democracy. Structured so as to represent Canadians proportionally by such demographic criteria as region, gender, ethnicity, class, age, and sexual orientation, a national citizens’ assembly could start out with a mostly advisory role, and then take on increasingly more power once the country becomes accustomed to its operation.

But in the meantime, what to do about the Senate election possibly coming to BC? Those of us who favour abolishing the Senate have a choice. We could boycott the election as a matter of principle, or we could just accept that the battle is lost and reluctantly add Senators to the list of people we vote for. A boycott carries the obvious risk of delivering victory to the worst of the worst (probably another Conservative). Perhaps the best possible outcome would be for some enterprising candidate to run on the pledge to try to abolish the Senate from within. I for one could scarcely resist voting for such a person — even if it means sullying myself by coming into contact with the notorious Red Chamber through the ballot box.