Think our Senate is horrible? Wait til you see Canada’s

July 9, 2013

Americans aren't especially happy with Congress. Only 10 percent say they have a "great deal" or "quite a lot" of confidence in the institution. And, last we checked, they liked lice, root canals, used car salesmen, and even Nickelback more than the legislative branch:


And the Senate isn't any exception. A number of individual Senators saw their approval ratings plummet following April's gun control vote, and in December, a plurality of Americans expressed opposition to the chamber's filibuster rules.

But our neighbors to the north aren't just upset with their upper house. A growing number of Canadian politicians want to eliminate the Canadian Senate entirely.

The idea has actually been around for quite some time: The New Democratic Party, the social democratic opposition at the federal level, and its leader Thomas Mulcair have long supported abolition.

Now, following a scandal in which a number of Senators were accused of improperly using public funds, and in which the prime minister's chief of staff resigned after it was revealed that he helped cover one Senator's expenses when he had to give the public money back, the idea's picking up steam. Mulcair recently launched a "Roll Up the Red Carpet" campaign dedicated to the proposal, and right-leaning Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has joined the call as well. British Columbia Premier Christy Clark, a member of the Liberal Party, is on board too. A recent CBC poll found that 49 percent of Canadians want the Senate reformed while 41 percent want it abolished. Only six percent want it to stay the way it is today. And an analysis from The Globe and Mail found that support for abolition has been growing relative to reform.

The scandal, historian Michael Bliss has predicted, will go down in history as the "suicide of the Senate." So what does the Canadian Senate actually do, and what, if anything, do its recent troubles suggest about our own upper house?

The Canadian Senate consists of 105 members appointed by the British Crown — represented in Canada by the Governor-General — on the advice of the prime minister. In practice, the PM has total control over new appointments. Members serve from their appointment until they turn 75; they're never elected or even reappointed. Ontario and Quebec, the two largest provinces, each get 24 members, as do the Western provinces (British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba) and the Atlantic provinces (New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island). Six seats go to Newfoundland and Labrador, and Nunavut, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories get one apiece.

Noted Canadian icon Robin Sparkles. (Ron P. Jaffe/FOX)
Noted Canadian icon Robin Sparkles. (Ron P. Jaffe/FOX)

While the regional representativeness of the body mirrors the U.S. Senate in some respects, the lack of elections, and thus of democratic representativeness, has translated into the Senate being far less powerful than the House of Commons, which is popularly elected in districts (or "ridings") of roughly equal population.

There are formal constraints on Senate's power, too. It can't propose spending bills or dissolve the government, for instance. But technically all legislation has to have its approval, and it can introduce non-spending bills. It just usually doesn't exercise this power. "It's always been a rubber stamp," says Nadia Verrelli, an assistant professor of political science at Lakehead University. "In terms of exercising political independence, that's rare."

A number of conservative Canadians have pushed for an elected Senate, with each province given an equal voice, regardless of population. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney included an elected Senate, with six senators per province and one per territory, in a 1992 package of proposed Constitutional reform, which ultimately failed. Preston Manning, the leading conservative Canadian politician of the 1990s, supported equal and elected per-province Senate representation as a way to boost Western Canada's influence. Stephen Harper proposed a similar plan for elections shortly after becoming prime minister in 2006, and brought it back up in 2010.

The current Senate isn't totally proportionate — the population-per-senator ratio is 23 times higher in British Columbia than in Nunvaut — but it's more proportionate than the U.S. Senate (California's ratio is 66 times that of Wyoming) and it's way more proportionate than a Canadian Senate with equally-represented provinces would be. Ontario has about 92 times as many people as Prince Edward Island. Opponents of such a plan denounce it as "Americanization." And, indeed, any election procedure, with or without equal representation of provinces, would likely increase the Senate's power. "The idea is that once they're elected, they'll be more efficient and have more powers, comparable to Australia or the U.S.," Verrelli says.

So the scandal could send the Canadian Senate in two very different directions. If the conservatives get their way, then it could become more powerful than ever, If the NDP, Wall and Clark succeed in pushing abolition, then it'll go from mostly-meaningless to totally meaningless. For procedural reasons, however, the former result could be more likely. The government has asked the Supreme Court to clarify how the Senate could be abolished, but in any case it'd require a Constitutional amendment. Whether that amendment can be passed the "easy" way — by a vote of seven provincial legislatures, representing over 50 percent of the population, along with the House of Commons and Senate — or the hard way, through unanimous votes of all provinces, has yet to be resolved, but either route is basically impossible.


Poutine. (Flickr)

By contrast, Harper has proposed instituting elections by having the provinces conduct them and then having the prime minister to appoint the winners. Alberta already runs such elections, and their results are often ignored, but one could imagine that system becoming the norm and a tradition of appointing the elections' winners emerging. Those elected Senators would have more of a claim to democratic legitimacy, which would probably make the body as a whole more powerful.

David E. Smith, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Saskatchewan, thinks the institution has gotten a bum rap. "It's the one part of the national parliament that was designed by the founders of the Confederation," he says. "The House of Commons was borrowed, but the Senate was designed and it's the one that's most criticized." Either going toward an American-style elected system or abolishing the institution, he argues, would give that up.

But with only 6 percent of Canadians liking the current system, some kind of change is looking more likely. And whether that change involves embracing the American model, or rejecting bicameralism altogether, is pretty up in the air at this point. So, as much as we hate our Congress, Americans can take some comfort in knowing that Canadians, at least, think it'd be a step up.

 

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