Friday, January 06, 2012

Reforming the Senate is a Stupid Idea: Abolish It

Many Liberals like many Canadians of the view that either the Senate should be abolished or it should be elected. This only goes to show that many Liberals have not given the matter much thought.

Canada is already a de facto unicameral state -- just ask the supporters of a Triple E senate. After all, one can not argue on the one hand that the current senate is undemocratic and so contributes to the "democratic deficit" and on the other hand argue that the senate is “ineffective”. A body that adds nothing to the genuinely "effective" process can not take away anything either.

Constitutionally senators have all kinds of power and every once in a blue moon the Senate has stalled major pieces of legislation (e.g., free trade and the GST). However the aforementioned instances of stalling are so rare they are the exceptions that prove just how "ineffective" the senate truly is. Moreover, no senate I can think of has pursued a legislative agenda of its own accord; opposing legislation is one thing; purposing legislation is quite another. The reason the senate is not an "effective" body is that senators are not elected and as such lack legitimacy. Furthermore, senators are members of legitimate federal political parties and the parties that they belong to are loath to have their unelected members exercise real authority least their actions undermine the party. Finally, the fact that it is the ruling federal party and not, say, provincial governments that appoint senators defines a clear pecking order, with the Senate answerable to the House.

The difference between electing senators and abolishing the senate is thus huge. It is the difference between abolishing an expensive debating society and transforming that debating society into a intellectual and democratic abortion.

The problem with an elected senate starts with implementation. Being unable to reform the Senate in one fell swoop, Harper has proposed electing Senators piece meal. Under the Conservative plan, new senators would be elected and would be limited to serving out a 8 year term. The elephant in the living room is that if the senate's lack of effective powers flows from the senate's lack of legitimacy, then electing senators might provide the senate with a degree of legitimacy it currently does not hold. One problem with proceeding thusly is that current senators are free to serve until the age of 75. As a result, Harper's actions could either transform an unelected political body with no real power into a largely unelected political body with real political power or commit Canadians to the farcical and expensive act of electing people to office who hold no real power. Always content to play the Tin Man and Lion to Conservatives scarecrow, the Liberals, with the notable exception of Stephane Dion, remain largely mum on the subject.

Of course the problems with an elected senate go far beyond problems with how to implement it.

First arguments for regional representation rests on a false contrast; seats in the House of Commons are supposed to be assigned on basis of population, but in actuality that is not the case. Consider the 905. There are currently 4 plus million living in the 905 and there are currently 32 seats for an average of just over 127,000 people per riding. There are 6 ridings with over a 140,000 people in the 905, Bramalea - Gore - Malton (152,698) Brampton West (170,422) Halton (151,943), Mississauga - Erindale (143,361) Oak Ridges - Markham (169,642) and Vaughan (154,206). By contrast there are 4.5 million people in Sask, Man, NWT, Nuv, Yuk, PEI, NS, NFLD, and NB and there are 62 seats for an average of 72,000 people per riding. Moreover, there is but one riding in the 9, Selkirk Interlake (90,807), with over 90,000 people. Given current growth trends, the 2011 census might show there to be more people in the 905 than the aforementioned provinces and territories. Given population growth, Harper would have to give Ontario alone another 70 seats to make things half way equal. Of course, the problems do not stop there. Not only are the smaller provinces grossely overrepresented so too are rural areas in most provinces. For example, the riding of has Labrador has 26,364 people as compared to the riding of St John's East which has 88,002, Kenora has 64,291 and suburban riding of Oak Ridges - Markham 169,642, Miramichi has 53,844 and Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe 89,334, Algoma—Manitoulin—Kapuskasing 77,961 and Vanughn 154,206.

Second, simply by virtue of having provincial jurisdiction and provincial representation people living in Canada’s less populated provinces already have a means of leveraging far more attention and support from the Federal government than their numbers warrant. Danny Williams had the government's attention in ways that the mayors of Surrey, Red Deer, Brant, Fredericton and Churchill did not even though we are talking about equal number of seats in both cases. There is more. There is also the asinine Canadian tradition of handing out cabinet posts based not on talent but region.

The third reason is that while one person one vote is bedrock principle of any democracy, one province one senate vote is something else entirely. People, not provinces, deserve equal representation. A province is no more or less than the people that make up that province. Giving the 135,851 in PEI the power to determine everything under provincial jurisdiction, provincial representation and 4 MPs well all the while giving the 170, 422 residents of Brampton West one MP is bad enough as it is. Piling on and giving the 135,851 people in PEI the same number of “effective” senators, as per the American Triple E Senate model, as 12,160,282 Ontarians is beyond stupid and grossly undemocratic. Equally silly is having one "effective" Senator for every 72,997 New Brunswick residents (10 senators in total) versus one Senator for every 685, 581 BC residents (6 senators in total). And that is what the current configuration gives us.

Four, as Benjamin Franklin put it, having two equally matched houses makes as much sense as tying two equally matched horses to either end of a buggy and having them both pull. Having two houses is not only a lobbyist's dream, it is a recipe for political gridlock and pork barrel politics. The only thing that would be worse is if one needed 60% of the votes in the senate to overcome a filibuster.

2 comments: said...

Sorry why wouldn't reforming an appointed Senate work?

FJohn Perry said...

You are quite right to oppose the
"farcical and expensive act of electing people to office who hold no real power"

That would be a needless duplication of the elections we presently hold for the Commons.