A Single-E Senate
might better do the job
By Ero Talvila

The Canadian Senate does not deliver to taxpayers their money's worth. Every so often voices are raised, demanding that it be reformed or abolished. But nothing happens. Is it political inertia? Disagreement over what to do about it? Or is it because the Senate is too useful to the government as a vehicle of patronage?

From 1978-80, there were numerous proposals to increase the Senate's powers. There was also an effort to get provincial representation in the Senate. During the 1980s, proposals for reform were more about having senators elected.

The only political party with a definite policy of Senate reform was the Reform Party. It advocated a Triple-E Senate: Elected, Equal and Effective. The National Alliance Party inherited this policy, although it makes less of an issue of it.

After evaluating this Triple-E Senate proposal, we will offer a different solution to the problem.

Should the Senate be reformed or abolished?

Despite frequent uninformed assertions that it is useless, the Senate does play a valuable role, and it has the potential to do more. It follows that ways should be sought to increase the effectiveness of the Senate before considering its abolition.

The role of the Senate

The principal task of the Senate is to review and refine Commons legislation; most of its amendments are speedily approved.

The Senate also has committees, both standing and ad hoc. The latter conduct studies, either independently of the Commons or together with it. Three recent thoughtful, well researched reports were on marijuana, health care and bank mergers.

Because their jobs are for life, senators feel more freedom than MPs to make recommendations that may not be to the government's liking.

Senators also feel free to loaf. It is said that most of the work is done by just one-third of the members.

The Senate sits for only two to four hours a day, three days a week. The average standing committee works 40 hours a year. The Senate sat for just 69 days last year.

By comparison, the House sits for five days a week and averages 150 days in a year.

Since Senators receive the same pay as MPs, it's obvious that most of them are not earning their pay cheques.

Is a Triple-E Senate viable?

Seeking policy papers from the National Alliance Party that might support the concept of a Triple-E Senate led to a surprising discovery. If such papers existed, they now reside with Preston Manning's other papers in the University of Alberta archives.

The second E, representing "Equal" provides for every province to have the same number of senators. The current distribution is Newfoundland, 6; Prince Edward Island, 4; Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, 10 each; Quebec and Ontario, 24 each; the western provinces, 6 each; and one in each of the northern territories. Seat distribution is deliberately skewed in favour of the smaller provinces to offset the preponderant voting strength of Ontario and Quebec in the House of Commons.

In the years since the seats were allocated, however, population has increased fastest in Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia. The result has been that the population-per-seat ratios now vary from province to province in the extreme. For instance, the West holds 24 seats to the Maritimes' 30, despite having four times the population; and Ontario has but five times as many seats as PEI, although its population is 86 times as great.

Obviously, a redistribution of seats is necessary in the interests of fairness.

The National Alliance proposal for an "equal" Senate is clearly absurd, especially if Senators get elected, as they advocate.

For a more equitable distribution of seats, we propose the following: Atlantic provinces, 16; Quebec and Ontario, 20 each; Manitoba and Saskatchewan, 6 each; Alberta and British Columbia, 10 each; the North, 1. They total 77, down from the current 105 Senate seats. Atlantic Canada and the North are combined because of their small numbers. They would have to agree among themselves on how to share the seats.

Despite this observation, however, if the Senate were to be elected, it would seem that the seat total would be better if left about as it is.

Is an elected Senate the answer?

Canada is currently the only democracy with a wholly appointed upper chamber. The Charlottetown Accord proposed elected senators, as do many advocates of Senate reform.

There are good reasons for not electing senators. Here are five.

1. Elections cost money; appointments do not.

2. Elections would favour the same sort of candidates as become MPs: those who are well financed, well connected, enjoy public recognition, have a pleasing appearance, can speak well, and can afford to take time off to campaign. Elections disadvantage women and those who do not score well on the above criteria -- even though they might have other attributes that well equip them for policy formulation and drafting of legislation. Such attributes as an aptitude for detail work, research and report writing, as well as uncommon wisdom are qualities that might be better assessed by their peers than by the electorate.

3. With there being one-third as many senators as MPs, each would be required to serve three Commons ridings. With the uneven distribution of Canada's population, some senatorial districts would be excessively large. Also, the bigger their districts, the closer their electorates would approach the Canadian average. This would favour the ruling party and those candidates with a generalized appeal, while disadvantaging smaller parties and candidates with a more local (sometimes ethnic) appeal.

4. Participation in federal elections is declining. Many voters are not even able to name their MPs. There would be even less interest in elections with a Senate whose members are yet more geographically remote, less visible publicly, and having less policy-making power than MPs.

5. If elections to both chambers were held concurrently, as would be likely, one might expect similar sorts of politicians to be elected to both. This would render the Senate somewhat redundant, as far as policy goes. On the other hand, differences on matters of policy could result in delaying Canadian legislation, possible deadlock and even early elections.

Should a decision be made to have senators elected, two proposals might well be considered.

First, give senators longer terms than MPs. This could be achieved by holding elections for senatorial posts together with every second Commons election.

Second, use a proportional representation voting system. There are variations of this system, but all would yield more opportunity for seats to be won by the smaller parties. This would result in making the Senate (and the Commons) more representative of the electorate's preferences than is the case with our current first-past-the-post voting system.

The foregoing should suffice to show that simply calling for elections ignores a number of problems. Indeed, there is a way to achieve a more representative senate without resorting to elections.

When appointing senators, the prime minister generally chooses members of his own party. Because the Liberal Party is now into its third consecutive mandate, the Senate has become predominantly Liberal. It will become even more so as senators appointed under the previous Progressive Conservative administration retire -- and yet more so should the Liberals get re-elected. Another 10 years of Liberal rule could see PC Party ranks down to just 10. No other party is currently represented in the Senate.

To correct this imbalance, we suggest that the task of appointing senators be transferred to provincial jurisdiction. There would be several advantages.

1. It would reduce the prime minister's excessive power through appointment.

2. Provincial governments would be better placed to find worthy candidates within their jurisdictions than the more remote federal government.

3. The inclination to make patronage appointments is further reduced because appointees would serve a different government than the one appointing them. Therefore they would be limited in their ability to influence legislation to create benefit for their home provinces.

4. The Senate would almost certainly be more representative of the Canadian electorate because of the variety of parties that hold provincial power. (Currently, all five federal parties are in power provincially.)

The third E -- Effective

We assume this means "more effective." There are some obvious ways to accomplish this.

Let's begin with entry qualifications. A senator-to-be should have to sever any political ties and relinquish all business interests or place them in a blind trust. (It is a fact that most senators serve on boards of directors.)

How long should they serve? A life term invites laziness. However, a term's duration should exceed that of an MP so that senators would be disposed to take a longer view of the future. Six years would be a sensible term, subject to renewal.

Since senators receive the same pay as MPs, their positions should, likewise, be full-time, with pay docked for truancy. Our earlier proposal to reduce the number of senators by about a quarter would effectively increase individual workloads. The remaining senators should be assigned more work.

An important task -- and one which the Commons is not well-suited to carry out -- is the production of long-range plans for deliberation by the House. These plans would be on such matters as population, natural and human resources, science and technology, and the environment. Senators (and also MPs) could conduct many of the studies that are often assigned to government task forces, royal commissions and the prime minister's office. Senators could also play a role in choosing governors-general and the heads of various federal agencies.

So there we have it: a genuine "House of the Provinces" for the new century -- Unelected, Unequal, but presumably Effective. The Senate's role would be strengthened to complement, but not compete with, the House of Commons.

Debate on the Senate's future has languished in recent years. This is a modest contribution to getting it re-started. Whether other countries with elected senates might have lessons for Canada has not been investigated.

These ideas are solely those of the author, without peer review. Comments from others are welcome.

Ero Talvila writes from his home in Toronto, ON