The Senate and our alienated regions

A vaguely persuasive argument for keeping the Senate


Adrian Wyld/CP

Brian Lee Crowley argues that we need an elected Senate for the sake of regional representation. This argument seems to require accepting three premises: 1) that regional alienation is a real thing with real consequences, 2) that Canada has somehow made it this far without an elected Senate fulfilling this role and 3) that an elected Senate would mostly solve the problem of regional alienation.

One of Canada’s great political and constitutional weaknesses has been the inability of the Canadian Senate to play this vital role of providing a credible community counterweight to the rep by pop-based power of the Commons. Appointed senators simply can never have the democratic horsepower to be a real counterweight to the Commons. The federal government’s legislation therefore lacks the legitimacy of the double-majority system that other federations have found so indispensable, and this is at the root of many of the problems of regional alienation and suspicion of the national government that has plagued this country since 1867.

When Roger Gibbens explained last year why he felt that Senate reform was no longer the priority it used to be, he ventured that western alienation wasn’t much of a concern anymore (or at least for now).

The push for Senate reform initially came at a time when western Canadians lacked an effective voice in the national Parliament, and thus Senate reform was proposed as a part of the solution. It was also pointed out that well-functioning federations all had upper houses that were based on regional representation, and that Canada’s Senate was a growing international embarrassment.

However, the proponents of Senate reform found no political traction, and the notion was repeatedly dismissed with a mixture of scorn and ridicule by governments of the day. But, as the movement for reform stalled, the world changed. The West grew in economic and demographic power, and then in 2006 a national government was elected with strong representation from western Canada.

So at least until someone representing a riding in Montreal or Toronto becomes prime minister, the West is apparently okay.

Meanwhile, as Stephane Dion has argued, moving to an elected Senate with the chamber’s current distribution of seats would actually work against the interests of British Columbia and Alberta.

Second, such an act would be against the interests of two of our provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Here is why: practically speaking, an elected upper chamber would carry more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form. The problem is that both western provinces are better represented in the House than they are in the Senate, and both provinces have only six senators, while some provinces have 10 with a population four or six times smaller.

So what to do? If regional representation is a good enough reason to have a Senate, then we probably have to do something about the distribution of seats. For perfect representation, an equal number of seats per province (two?) would likely be necessary. So could we redistribute the seats without alienating some of the provinces that benefit from the current arrangement without inflaming regional grievances? Or, put another way, which is more likely to drive us apart as a people: abolishing the Senate or reconstituting the Senate?

The argument for a second chamber that balances regional representation is at least more persuasive than the other usual defences of the Senate (It periodically catches problems with legislation! Its committee studies are super interesting!). But is the need for a second chamber predicated on regional representation so great that we need to bother? Is the benefit of a second chamber predicated on regional representation so great that we should aspire to it? Or could we basically carry on without a Senate of any kind? I still tend to believe we’d be fine without a Senate.


The Senate and our alienated regions

  1. MPs already are ‘regional representation’

    • Yep, except that some places like PEI and Quebec are over represented and don’t want to give up the seats to balance it. Wstern Canada is now much larger than Quebec, yet the seat allocations don’t show the right proportions.

      So they make parliament bigger. Not very efficient, but you are correct. In the flawed feudal system of parliamentary system, regional is MP/parliament and thus the senate is completely redundant.

      To make the senate useful would require changing to a republican system and empowering the senate with useful duties. But that would scare me as Ottawa isn’t capable of that kind of change without screwing it up.

      So eliminating the useless senate is the right thing to do.

      • Quebec currently is the province whose electoral quotient is closest to the national average, while the territories and six least populous provinces are heavily overrepresented.

  2. Democracy demands suspicion. The framers of our government understood that fundamental fact. Democracy leaves a door open to unbridled populism and an attendant risk that voters may elect a scoundrel, or worse a team of scoundrels.

    Yes, the notion of an appointed body over-ruling an elected one seems offensive today, but the fact remains that our system has checks and balances of which one is the Senate; it isn’t just a check against a government, but democracy too.

    It isn’t surprising that people these days, so influenced by republicanism inherent in American culture, find the notion disturbing, but the Senate is just what it is supposed to be. The notion of reform or abolition is ridiculous.

    The Senate is supposed to function by a collection of cronies and hacks who are supposed to feel somewhat independent of party politics, or an allegiance to the PM who appointed them. Naturally, one assumes that their thankfulness for the perks and pay maintains their loyalty, but thankfully too, politicians are not moral creatures. They are scoundrels, as they are supposed to be.

    The problem isn’t the Senate. The problem is the unwillingness of politically astute observers and pundits to understand the purpose and role of that great institution. It is doing just what it is supposed to do. Our system of government is dependent on several ironies; this is just one of them.

    The underlying assumption is counter intuitive, but true. Democracy rests on power and the natural tendency for it to corrupt decent people. That insight, written so long ago by Baron John Acton (1834-1902), expressed a widely understood political reality in a letter to Bishop Mandell Chreighton in 1887: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” and “Great men are almost always bad men.”

    Today, people consider such an opinion negative or cynical, but Baron Acton was more right than he knew. A democratically elected, majority government can be just as tyrannical and corrupt as the worst of European monarchs who ruled by war, oppression, and privilege. The institution of the Senate brings balance and essential second thought on legislation passed by the Lower House, which steadies Democracy in uncertain times; at least that was the peculiar notion that the framers of our political system imagined when they envisioned it.

    • The UK is chucking senators/lords there too….and the whole place will be chucked shortly. It’s not sacred, after all

      Goodness, why are Canadians so stuffy?1

      • Ottawa loves the bloat, they get to tax us more.

        • Taxes are the price of civilization.

          And taxes in Canada are very reasonable.

          • Reasonableness is in the eye of the beholder. I suspect people’s opposition to taxes would not be as great if governments were to prefer to tax unproductive activity (pollution, financial speculation, land speculation) rather than productive activity (sales, income, buildings).

          • ‘Tax concern’ is a recent rightwing American import. They founded their country on opposition to a tax, and on slavery. Hasn’t made them any more advanced than any other western country, but they persist.

            We’ve had taxes for thousands of years….sometimes they’re high, sometimes low depending on the situation at the time….but we’ve always had them.

            And for thousands of years people have complained about it.

            We really need to do something more productive.

    • I’m not sure if I agree with you, but I sure respect reading a new argument on a tired, old subject.

    • Stuff it toady. The Senate is used to hand out patronage by corrupt political parties. Anyone who defends it as “tradition” or anything along the lines of “correcting” and “handling” Democracy can screw off and abstain from exercising their democratic rights, so we can do what needs to be done.

      • The Senate is being used to hand out patronage by corrupt political parties so the solution would be to get rid of the Senate but keep the corrupt political parties who will continue to hand out patronage anyway? How would that improve our democracy? Is democratic legitimacy only to be conferred upon those who one day every four years win a contest? The rest of the time Canadians are to obey? You stuff it too.

        • I never said this is a fix all for our Democratic deficit. But both eliminating it and preventing Harper from passing unconstitutional amendments would be a good start.

          The next step is eliminating First Past the Post, reforming Elections Canada (and enshrining Elections Canada violations into the criminal code) and getting an inquiry underway into the 2011 and 2008 elections.

          • Andrew, our system needs fixing, but having politicians do it scares me. We need some dedicate clear thing minds capable of practical (not academic) thought.

            Government doesn’t’ have people like that, they think too clearly. Any changes Ottawa makes to democracy will fail as we can’t even get equality right.

      • Yep, democracy in Canada is a ruse.

    • Oversight would be in the form of the governor general, supreme court and the subsequent election. I suspect the majority of the population would prefer that the senate be abolished, and 105 seats be added to the house of commons, which would result in the national popular vote for each party be more appropriately represented in the house of commons, make Alberta, British Columbia and Ontario more appropriately represented, increase voter turnout and reduce the influence of “special interests” (due to the lower cost of campaigning per riding).

  3. ” But is the need for a second chamber predicated on regional representation so great that we need to bother?”

    Speaking as an ex-pat from one of the smaller provinces – yes. The larger provinces often sacrifice the interests of the smaller for their own gain. The Senate isn’t perfect, but it does give the smaller provinces some small extra (much needed) influence.

    • Baloney.

      • Ah, your usual quality rebuttal, I see!

    • “Need” is in the eye of the beholder.

  4. This is what people don’t get. Thank you for helping to clear it up.

    If the distribution of seats is not based on Representation by Population, then it doesn’t matter if it becomes an elected-chamber or not. It’s better to eliminate it then go down that road of tinkering it in anyone’s favor. We tolerate that fact, that it gives undue representation to some regions because it and the “work” it does is 99.99% useless. Not because we put up with it to give smaller provinces a louder voice to keep our happy Federation chugging along.

    Doing anything but abolishing it will create Constitutional battles we need to avoid. And on that note, the provinces have to be consulted in either case. Otherwise anything Parliament passes to address it would be invalid.

  5. Having a Prime Minister who speaks with and consults with his/her provincial counterparts, even those with diametrically opposed politics, would also help boost regional representation. The level of pork barreling would (possibly) be lower, too.

    Brian “creepy” Crawley. Has he ever been right about anything?

  6. While regional representation is a very valid argument, and I even buy into it somewhat.

    The real problem is can you trust Ottawa and the provinces not to botch it up or actually do something?

    I still stick by elimination of the senate as it is so simple even Ottawa can’t screw it up. I mean this serously. Does anyone really expect Ottawa to get her done? Oh sure, they will bicker a lot, talk a lot, grand stand but if you don’t keep it simple, Ottawa will botch it up somehow.

    As ballots are always rigged anyway. Professional politicians managing us, none are there to manage government for us. We have 3 major parties with one result, more waste, more government and more taxes with less for us. I call this the ruse of democracy. As really, media and back room lobby money run this country. Peoples votes don’t mater as government bloat always wins.

    With parliament going up in head count we are bloated at the top given our population base.

    Sorry Conservatives, you are a huge disappointment as government is bigger than ever before, they are more taxing than ever before and nothing conservative about that.

  7. And watch, we might see the first time in history the senate actually does something. That is block the bill to eliminate senate. Then they will go to sleep for another hundred years.

  8. Dion is double speak for it doesn’t work for Quebec. As AB and BC would have twice as many senators if done like the USA.

    But I don’t politicians to get this right and actuall move on the issue. Since confederation started, there has been talk of fixing the senate and it never happens.

    Lets just abolish it. Its an appendix, one that costs us too much. So simple to abolish it that even Ottawa might get it right.

    • I’d like to hear from you as to why people in areas of lower population density, why they should extend the amount of trust to people in areas of higher population density, that those in areas of higher population density conclude they are entitled to?

Sign in to comment.