Unelected senators, to save democracy


Senator Elaine McCoy makes the case for a reformed, but still appointed, Senate.

Consider what happens now when you elect someone to go to Ottawa. No sooner have they spent their first term in office than they’re emailing home to explain why they voted for something their constituents didn’t want. The reason, of course, is party discipline. They’re “whipped,” i.e., told to vote with their party or else leave caucus. Most stay and do what they’re told. Without the party, it’s very difficult to get re-elected.

It would be no different for senators if they were running for election. Most would run as party candidates. What we’d end up with is nothing more than 105 more backbenchers. Right back, in fact, where we started. So let’s start again. Let’s take the proposition that an independent, appointed Senate is, after all, Canada’s last best chance for democracy.


Unelected senators, to save democracy

  1. I prefer an unelected Senate as well, and at the very least that any change made be done properly, through consultation with the provinces. However, despite Ms. McCoy's no doubt good intentions, I think 'blue ribbon panel' seems like far too open ended without knowing who'd be on it, and how they'd determine whether someone is suitable for the Senate. Would they want to go with former politicians? sector experts? Would journalists qualify? When the notion first came up, I stopped and thought a cursory glance at his resume would make Duffy look like a good choice. I

  2. Why not do the same thing with the Commons? After all, the same arguments the honourable senator uses against the election of Senators surely applies to those who sit in the Commons.

    Perhaps we could ask the Hong Kong government how to "improve" democracy by ensuring we remove the "mob" from the business of governing? But, of course, they are moving in the direction of allowing more democracy, not less – so perhaps Senator McCoy should warn them of the dangers of turning government over to the great unwashed.

    • At no point does Senator McCoy suggest representative democracy is bad. What she suggests, essentially, is that we don't have it now.

      What's your solution to the concern over excessive whipped votes and no actual representation? Or do you not see it as a problem?

      • Electing a stable majority govenrment would be a good first step. The perpetual threat of elections and fear of defeat leads to an excessive degree of government control over members. Other improvements would be to return the election of party leaders to the caucus, and away from general party membership – a change that is, unfortunately very unlikely. A further improvement would be to reform the way in which people are selected for candidacy – a fairer, more transparent and less-prone-to-abuse system would improve the quality of those who run for office and, therefore, the quality of representation.

        There is no single solution to the perceived problem of an ineffective Commons. But denigrating democracy by promoting the notion that a "blue ribbon" panel can make wiser decisions than the people is not a path to start taking.

        • Read your comment.

          You begin by advocating a 'blue ribbon' panel, in the form of a caucus, be given the sole authority over who becomes Prime Minister and the party leaders, taking that role away from the people, in the form of the party membership.

          You end by deriding a 'blue ribbon' panel as incapable of making wiser decisions than the people.

          A bit conflicted, perhaps?

          • Not conflicted – just sarcastic, something that doesn't come off well in short blog entries like this. I don't think a "blue ribbon" panel is a good alternative for anything – other than order of Canada decisions.

  3. Please eliminate the senate and be done with it. Rent out the camber for weddings, earn a little extra dough on the side. We have a deficit, people.

    • Eliminating / altering the Senate, and the fact that we have a federal deficit, are two separate conversations.

      I would like a peanut butter sandwich — we have a deficit, people. See how it doesn't follow? :-)

      • My reply got lost – I was joking (about the deficit part). Apologies for lack of funniness.

  4. She raises an excellent point. The electoral system already might as well be an appointed system, since parties generally vote in blocs.

    On the other hand, an appointed system is not much better since Prime Ministers can stack the Senate with those who see things their way.

    Perhaps the best solution is to have Senate appointments voted up or down by the House, where the election is held by secret ballot. That way there can be no repercussion for members who vote down their party's appointee.

    • Or get premieres involved in some way?

      I think the problem is any appointment process hinges on people trusting who makes the appointments… which I think at any time would be much less than half the voting population…

      • Alberta is the only province to have elected their own senator ' Burt Brown' . unfortunately he was ignored by Paul Martin. When the conservatives came into Office. prime minister stephen harper chose albertans' chosen senator.

        • How does Alberta elect their senator choice(s)? Is it a list of names on the ballot during provincial elections? If so, how do the names get on the ballot?

    • Actually, a secret ballot implemented for certain House of Commons activities could be a very powerful and yet very subtle tool to reducing the whipping issue. If private members' bills could get to the floor based on a secret ballot (as a simplification for my example) that could dramatically change the conversations and debates.

      • Yep. It would eliminate whipped votes altogether.

  5. I like the Senator's sentiment. The Senate should be filled with distinguished Canadians from fields relative to politics. The members should be distinguished individuals with backgrounds in diplomacy, the military, business, labour, education, science, the arts, religion/charity/NGOS, and the judiciary/law. For it to work we would have to abolish provincial representation (it is outrageous that PEI gets 6/105 seats). They should be appointed by the Governor General herself, not the Prime Minister, perhaps with the advice of a bipartisan committee.

    This type of Senate could really serve as an institution of "sober second thought."

    • I don't think you can improve democratic government by introducing a system that denigrates democracy. The notion of the governor general acting independently of her Prime Minister would be setting the consittution back to before the "Glorious Revolution". I agree it would be wonderful if individuals with backgrounds in diplomacy, the military, business, labour etc were involved in the decision-making of government. They should be encouraged to run for office in order to join those others with that background in the Commons – or, if we need a regional balance, in the Senate.

      But surely we have outgrown our fear of democracy and the need to have a duplicate of the House of Lords keeping the "people" under control. The notion that a council of experts will govern us better than people chosen by their fellow citizens is a little too confucian for Canadian society I hope.

      • That's why we have both. We have those the people choose, and then we have the experts that our representatives choose for us. It seems you're trying to frame the debate along the lines of we should have all appointed or all elected, and arguing it from there, but the reality is that we have both — and personally I think that's a better system.

        That said, I do agree that having the governor general appoint them in any capacity beyond passive assent, as she does now, probably isn't the best idea as the GG is not elected at all.

        Those who argue that a senate is not democratic neglect the fact that it is made democratic because it is an appointment of those who are democratically elected. If we don't like the decisions those we've democratically elected are likely to make, we shouldn't elect them in the first place.

        • I agree that it is not necessarily undemocratic to rely on democratically elected representatives to make appointments. In practice that allows for far better appointments, to the courts, civil service, etc, than the haphazard practices of the United States where some of those positions are subject to direct election. Senator McCoy's suggestion appears to actually move away from even the second-hand democracy of the current system – into some form of government by technocrats. I'm far from convinced that would be an improvement.

          • I like the idea of an all-party selection panel of MPs that would select Senators in much the same way as one would appoint Supreme Court Justices. I think the goal should be to select people who are capable and disposed toward careful and reasoned consideration of policies. Not necessarily unaffiliated, but not cartoonishly partisan. I also like the idea of long terms. This way we won’t have the Senate challenge the HoC for primacy, continue/enhance the sober second thought quality, and we can worry less about the outrageous regional imbalances. Let’s face it: we are absolutely stuck with those regional imbalances unless we are willing to blow up the constitution and start from scratch, which I don’t think is feasible.

  6. It would be no different for senators if they were running for election. Most would run as party candidates.

    This is surely preferable to, say, the laughable fiction that a senator might be named by the government of one party to sit as an "independent member" of another.

    • Right, because it is much better to have the senators a government names first sign a private, unconstitutional agreement whereby they swear an allegiance to that Prime Minister.

  7. Exactly. I don't see how getting premiers involved helps though.

    • The first elected senator in ALBERTA was Stan Watters in the '80; no other province has yet to elect their own senator.

  8. In my mind that means it would never be agreed to. I think it would have to be such a small, gentle change that nobody thinks it would really have a big impact. It has to be a small snowball, not a gigantic avalanche, at the beginning.

    I don't know enough Parliamentary procedure to suggest ideas, but something that is essentially ignored now that could somehow be harnessed when people are cranky. Vacation schedules or recognizing time extensions or something? I don't know.

  9. Not sure what you're suggesting here, but in my opinion stealthily putting things over on the electorate that they wouldn't approve outright is generally not a good thing.

  10. Elected or not, McCoy is absolutely correct that at least Senators need to be able to thumb their collective noses at the party leaders. However, the US shows the issue with going in that direction… there porkbarrel politics become normal and every congressman and senator expects a payout for their vote. The difference may in part be due to government structure, but I suspect the most pertinent differences are in nomination proceedures and campaign financing. Some keen, analytic, economic oriented mind such as Coynes should really look into this.

    • Our senate has a much more limited legislative mandate than the US, though. Even then, the US senate is much less party disciplined than our current senate.

      Also, the regional pulls in Canada are much stronger than in the US so there could be more independence from party if senators were elected for long periods (8/12 years).

  11. Sorry, I mean to stealthily put one over on the PMO, not the electorate.

    My take, basically, is that the PMO controls everything, and there's no room for dissenting voices in any party most of the time. Even the opposition doesn't have an incentive for a disorganized message. So there needs to be an opportunity for backbenchers to vent, or change the subject, or show displeasure, which cannot be traced back to them and used against them. Like whistleblower laws protect the whistleblower.

    So I'm hoping we could find some votes in the House of Commons which require majority approval, but which are not a huge impact on government business, that could be altered to a secret ballot. Then if sufficient anger develops in the populace and/or the MPs themselves, this would be a way of venting. Like the upcoming "maybe we shouldn't take so much vacation" vote on suspending the summer holiday weeks – rather than the Liberals using it as a weapon against the PMO, a secret ballot could (*could*) allow the members to show displeasure at the situation and force more responsiveness and actual adjustment from the PMO.

    I don't guarantee this, it's more of a thought experiment.

    • I see. That makes sense tactically, but what about the more fundamental objection that secret ballots reduce an MP's accountability to his constituents?

      • Very good point. My first instinct was the make all 3rd (final) readings recorded votes, and only use secret for administrative things, but that would probably be immediately coopted as a way to invent arguments and blame the other parties for every result. (vote up to get embarassing bill into the papers, then vote it down when your reelection is on the line)


  12. If the problem is party discipline, why not address the real problem and fix the parties?

    • Suggestions as to how?

      • If you want to break party discipline, you could increase the number of seats and have MPs select their leader. This would both be more democratic as the public elects MPs while the party picks delegates to conventions, not to mention that more seats means better representation.

        That'd be how it seems to work in the UK, anyway.

        • That won't change a thing. Remember, the problem is that it's hard to get elected without party backing. If you want party backing, you have to toe the line, and that doesn't mean just in the house of commons, it means in all actions dealing with the party.

          • Um. You notice how I provided an example of this in practice? Hardly a day goes by where Gordon Brown isn't facing a revolt by his backbenchers who won't support one government proposal or another, the same was the case with Tony Blair and though its before my time, I'm sure the same was the case with John Major and Margaret Thatcher etc etc.

            Somehow, those backbenchers all got elected and still do this. Maybe there's something to be learned there?

          • Yes, what's to be learned is that their parties haven't established iron grips over their candidates yet. Look up how you get removed from a party there in comparison to here.

            Here, you're out if the party says you're out, period. There, you're out based on your local party association.

          • Certainly giving the MPs the right to elect or dismiss their leader is an empowering factor. That alone would rebalance much of the power base in Ottawa. It seems unlikely any party leader would allow that to happen (although Mr. Dion's defenestration appears to be an example of this happening in practice, if not in theory). More commonly party leaders have embraced the notion of "one member one vote" in order to eliminate any alternate power structures within their parties – and ensuring they have the ultimate moral high ground in any internal disputes – they are elected by all the members – whereas individual MPs represent, at most, a fraction of them each. Thus the illusion of democracy ensures security for leaders.

      • 1) put the final authority for candidate selection to the local riding association
        2) channel the $/vote money through the local riding associations

        • Yeah, generally speaking the less power in the hands of the central party executive the better but I'm not sure those two would help much. Local boards have been stacked before and will be again, I'm sure.

        • How deep do we want to get into legislating how the parties can choose which candidates they support? What if, say, the fascism party decides that it's going to let it's imperious leader pick who the candidates are and that their riding associations are just there to take orders from the hierarchy. Do we say that's an invalid method of organizing? Even if we do, can we actually stop it, if that's what these people agreed to when they joined the party? I mean, I'm not saying I disagree with the idea, I just don't know if it's practical at all.

          As for 2), well, unless you've got 1) under control, 2 doesn't make any difference. Remember, the new agreement for conservative candidates is that the party can basically dictate where any money the party provides them goes to, I expect any such channelling would result in a quickly revised agreement that dictates that the party can dictate where any $/vote money goes.

          • Right.

            You asked for suggested solutions, and you're now going out of your way to counter both of the ones that have been suggested so far. So, I've got to ask: were you asking because you were honestly interested, or do are you convinced the status quo is fine?

          • I'm asking not because I think the status quo is fine, but because I don't think it's nearly as easy a task as you make out. Why not get to the root of the problem indeed? Well hell, if that's all it took, we must all have been stupid not to do it years ago.

            I'm asking because I want you to actually think about the problem, and maybe realize things aren't as simple as you'd like to believe.

          • So, in other words, you asked so you could shoot down any proposed suggestions.

            If you wanted to say "things aren't that easy", you could have just said that rather than what you've chosen to do, you know? That might have been a discussion worth having, but with how you've picked to do this, you'll be getting no more replies from me giving you the benefit of the doubt.

          • Hey, come up with a decent idea, and I'll be all for it. Who knows, maybe you'll be able to spot a hole in counter-arguments I make and then everybody's better off. But if you just don't want to think, then you're right, you shouldn't respond to me.

          • Thinking and discussion are all fine with me.. What I don't particular like is spending time replying seriously to people who deliberately misrepresent themselves and who'd suggest that by not replying to them I "don't want to think".

          • How did I deliberatly misrepresent myself? I asked a question, you provided an answer, I demonstrated that answer wasn't sufficient, you had a hissy fit that I didn't simply accept whatever crap you spewed, even if it wouldn't work, and thus suggested that if this was going to be my pattern (pointing out the holes in your faulty arguments) you didn't want to talk.

            Sorry, but to my eyes, that very much strikes like "not wanting to think beyond the most obvious answer" But hey, if I'm wrong, by all means let's continue — prove that you're answer is correct and I'm wrong. I'm certainly open to it.. after all, it's only when I'm wrong that I've really learned anything. If I'm right, the best I can hope for is that someone else learned.

          • I presume there are lots of restrictions on party organization and finances due to the income tax subsidy and $/vote support they get already. Forcing them to follow a local, democratic process makes a lot of sense in a representative democracy. I am not saying that local organizations could not be convinced to allow a star candidate to be parachuted in… but they would have to be convinced. (In this system, the parties become an affiliation of local organizations with an admin structure on top)
            Again, there is nothing to stop the local riding from channelling the money back to the centre but they would have to be convinced.
            Finally there is a third component, which would automatically transfer some of the $/vote money to an independent. The threat that a popular MP (I miss Kady's maverick watches) who stands up to their leader and then continues to win elections as an independent would be a potent component in defending the role of MPs. (I agree it is a MAD defense, but that is preferable to no defense at all)

          • I see what you're getting at. The problem I'm having with it is that just because we say that the local areas have the choice doesn't mean that contracts can't be written up in such a way that that "choice" is entirely illusory. A party constitution could easily say that all members of a local party association agree to support the goals and means of the party as a whole, and not doing so means you do not get support from the party.

            You put a metaphorical gun to my head and tell me to tell you that I'm doing X out of my own free will, and yeah, I'm going to do exactly that. Considering that a good portion of Canadians vote based on the party, no matter who their local candidate is (ie Rob Anders), and that even with the $/vote subsidy, party funding comes in large part from private donations to the party as a whole, and that metaphorical gun is still loaded.

        • I think a good balance for giving ridings the final say in candidate selection would be to allow the riding association the right to nominate whoever they choose, but the party leadership can veto the selection. If the selection is vetoed, then the party may run no candidate in the riding in the next election, and the vetoed candidate could elect to run as an independent. For any MP to cross the floor and join a party, the riding association must ratify that individual.

          As a separate issue, I think sitting MPs should also be required to face a vote before carrying their candidacy into a new election. If a candidate loses the confidence of his or her riding association, the party should not be able to protect them.

  13. Just recognize me as Canada's king and I'll be happy.

    • No problem. You just have to marry Prince William.

  14. Unenforceable at law, almost certainly. Unconstitutional? Grow up. That word has a meaning other than "things my political opponents do that I don't like but can't articulate why," you know.

    • I love nearing retirement age young at heart and with ideals intact. No, I shall most definitely not grow up if that means become cranky, cynical and mean. And I did mean unconstitutional as in never survive a court challenge, so I guess that is unenforceable at law, as you say. How do you pronounce potato?

  15. Whoops! I see it now, sorry I jumped so quick.

  16. "Let's take the proposition that an independent, appointed Senate is, after all, Canada's last best chance for democracy."

    To call this statement Orwellian is to invite a defamation suit from Orwell's descendants. This is 2+2=5 stuff.

  17. With all due respect for the senator:

    same old, same old, same old……………

  18. Can you say constitutional convention, except you do not invite any politicians! Think Iowa Caucuses!!