Canada is a country who's future is in question. Serious political issues have recently overshadowed economic concerns. Constitutional debate over unity and Quebec's future in the country is in the heart of every Canadian today. Continuing conflicts concerning Aboriginal self-determination and treatment are reaching the boiling point. How can Canada expect to pull herself out of this seemingly bottomless pit? Are Canadians looking at the right people to lay their blame? In the 1992 Referendum, "The Charlottetown Accord" addressed all of these issues, giving Canadians the opportunity to finally let the dead horse be - but oh, if it were that simple. A red faced Brian Mulroney pontificated that a vote against the accord would be one against Canada. Canadians would essentially be expressing the desire for Quebec to remain excluded from the constitution. How could the Right-Honorable Mulroney expect anyone to vote on a document that contained so much more than simply the issue of Quebec sovereignty? Ironically, hidden deep within "The Charlottetown Accord," was the opportunity for Canadians to make a difference; to change the way the government ran, giving less power to the politicians and more to the people. This was the issue of Senate Reform.
Why is Senate Reform such an important issue? An argument could be made that a political body, which has survived over one hundred years in Canada, must obviously work, or it would have already been reformed. This is simply not true, and this becomes apparent when analyzing the current Canadian Senate.
In its inception, the Senate was designed to play an important role in the Government of Canada, representing various regions of the federation. Quebec, Ontario, the maritimes and the west were allotted twenty-four Senators each. Considered to be the heart of the federal system, the Senate was to be a crucial balancing mechanism between Upper and Lower Canada (Mallory pg. 247). It was important for there to be equal representation, and not representation by population. Senators were to be appointed, in order to ensure that the House was independent and had the freedom to act on its own. As well, Senators had to be seen as a conservative restraint on the young, the impressionable, and the impulsive in the House of Commons (Van Loon and Whittington pg. 625). They therefore had to be over thirty years old and own property exceeding four thousand dollars in the province they represented. This idea was called 'second sober thought.' As this independent, intellectual body, the Senate's main function was to ensure that all power did not come from one source. In theory, this prevented a dictatorial government, since any action (such as the passing of a Bill into law) had to receive the 'O.K.' from the Senate. This was protecting Canada's democracy. In 1949, six addition seats were given to Newfoundland, and in 1975, two more seats were added to give the Northwest Territories and the Yukon representation; a total of 104 Senators.
Over 100 years later, it is clear that the Canadian Senate does serve the function for which it had originally been designed. In fact, it is flawed in many ways. Firstly, the Senate does not have a voice to set the priorities for the Cabinet, and it lacks the expertise to handle policy making. Secondly, since the party in power appoints Senators when vacancies occur, the tendency has been to appoint people with connections to that party. This means that the Senate is neither representative of all ideologies nor reflective of the people's interest. No member of the Senate, for example, reflects the New Democratic Party's view, since that party has never been in power. Therefore that portion of Canada who supports the NDP is certainly not represented. How legitimate is the Senate when its members are appointed and not elected? Thirdly, the Senate is not necessarily comprised of members with political experience, and this brings about the question of efficiency; how effective can the Senate be if its members are not all comprised of 'experienced' politicians?
Another flaw in the Senate is that, due to appointment, the Upper House has been viewed as an old-folks home for retired politicians, having demonstrated faithful service for the party in power for many years. Many appointments to the Senate are rewards for 'a job well done'. This, as well as the fact that Senators are appointed until they reach seventy-five years of age, has caused the Senate to appear more like a 'Party-Members-Only' club, and not the independent force for which it was designed. Sadly, it is the citizens of Canada who are paying the membership fees.
The Senate does perform a few functions that may warrant some of the expense to Canadians. Since the Senate mainly handles private bills, this allows the House of Commons to focus on government legislation (Van Loon and Whittington pg. 627). As well, the Senate committees are becoming involved in investigations into political affairs, which would otherwise be left to expensive royal commissions. By alleviating some of the pressures on the House of Commons, the Senate does act as a go-between on many political issues. Even still, the Senate costs Canadians millions of dollars a year in salaries, pensions, and other miscellaneous expenses, which are unnecessary.
There are therefore three choices: Canada can maintain the Senate as it stands, an outdated, expensive, and ineffective body in the government; the Senate can be abolished, meaning the Prime Minister becomes the dictator of a one-party government; the Senate can be reformed so that it is effective and representative of the population. Clearly, the best choice is for Senate reform, since a reformed Senate plays an important role in a democratic government. Looking at the U.S. Senate, as well as the Polish Kancelaria Senatu, provides some insight into the way Canada may wish to reform her Senate.
The U.S. Senate provides an excellent model for a reformed Canadian Senate. While still with weaknesses, the U.S. Senate is an effective and efficiently run body of the U.S. government. It reinforces the notion of checks and balances, and allows a separation of powers between the two branches of government. The citizens elect two Senators from each state, regardless of size, for a term of six years. To be eligible to run in a Senatorial election, each person must be at least thirty years old, have been a citizen of the United States for nine years, and be a resident in the state in which he or she is running. In terms of representation, each state has equal representation, ensuring that every state has two voices. As well, it allows for the possibility that the majority party in the Senate is not necessarily the majority party in the congress, eliminating the party bias. The Vice President is the president of the Senate, and has the right to vote in the case of a tied-vote. This is a largely ceremonial function, one that is not usually carried out (Wasserman pg. 99). The majority leader of the Senate, the Senator from the majority party who has served the longest, schedules debates, assigns bills to committees, coordinates party policy, and appoints members of special committees (Wasserman pg. 99). The Senate is both a deliberative and a decision-making body (U.S. Senate Homepage: Introduction). The main function of the U.S. Senate is to debate bills either introduced in the Senate, or passed to it, approving then, amending them, or killing them. Since it is a separate body from the Congress, in order for a bill to be passed, it must be approved by both bodies.
One of the criticisms of the U.S. Senate is that it is a large body consisting of many committees and sub-committees. Since the process to passing a bill must first go through these committees before it is debated upon, the procedure tends to be quite slow and expensive. Another criticism is that, while the Senate does represent each state equally, women and minorities are not equally represented. However, as compared to the Canadian Senate, the U.S. Senate is more efficient and effective in its procedures.
The Polish Senate, the Kancelaria Senatu, is similar to that of the U.S. Senate. What is significant is that Poland's modern Senatu has only been six years in existence, with amendments as recent as 1994. Senators are elected in free, public, direct and open voting. A simple majority is required for a candidate to be elected based on plurality. The general population, political parties, or social organizations can nominate candidates for the Senatu. These candidates must be supported by at least three thousand voters who reside in each constituency. Poland is divided up into territories called voivodship territories, and two Senators are elected from each territory, excluding Warsaw and Katowice, who are represented by three Senators. Each Senator is elected for a term of four years, but may run for any number of terms. Unlike the U.S. Senate, the Polish Senatu works in conjunction with the legislative branch called the Sejm, and they deliberate jointly. The Senatu examines bills passed by the Sejm, and can accept, amend, or reject them. If the Senatu's amendments have financial implications for the state budget, it must indicate how these are to be met. The Sejm must have an absolute majority to reject the Senatu's proposals for the bill, or else the Senatu's decision is final. The Senatu also approves the decision of the President for national referendums on matters of interest to the State.
No member of the Polish Senatu belongs to an official registered party. This is significant because it removes the risk of party bias. As well, any citizen may run for the Senatu, allowing for a more direct form of representation. While the Senatu is not as powerful as the U.S. Senate, it still plays an important role in the notion of checks and balances.
Both the U.S. Senate and the Polish Senatu demonstrate how an effective Senate is an asset to any government, and to the people it represents. Reforming Canada's Senate is therefore very important. However, the difficulty in achieving any reformation depends solely on the 'powers-that-be.' The goals of a reformed Senate are to give more representation to all areas of Canada, to make Senators accountable to all Canadians, and to ensure that the Senate is a separate power from the legislature; in essence a more democratic Senate. Since it is so apparent that the Senate requires reform, the question isn't so much as to why and if it should be reformed, but rather to how? How can this be achieved?
The general population must elect Senators, in order for there to be true democracy. The tradition of stacking the Senate, due to appointment, must not be allowed to continue. Much like the U.S. and Polish Senates, any Canadian, thirty years or older, and having been a resident in Canada for eight years, may run for the Senate. Candidates can be nominated by any political or social organization, or by the general population, but must have five thousand supporters from the constituency represented, and must live in that constituency. The candidates will not run on a party platform, and instead will run as independents. By eliminating party platforms, three things are accomplished. Firstly, candidates will be elected based on what they believe and not what a party believes. The electorate would decide on the candidate best suited for the position based on his or her own opinions, plans, and accomplishments. Secondly, this allows the Senate to be more objective, and therefore more effective. Thirdly, there would be no need for party discipline, and no risk of fixed voting.
Since the Senate remains independent from the executive branch of the government, timing of elections must be separate from parliamentary elections. The Prime Minister is not the head of the Senate, and therefore should not decide the actions of the Senate. Therefore, having a fixed date will ensure that there is no conflict of interest. Senators would be elected to a six-year term, with a fixed election every three years for half of the Senate. This allows the population the opportunity to choose who should represent then more often. A term of more than six years would mean that the Senate would lose its effectiveness, and risk succumbing to the influences of the Members of Parliament. Even in a six-year term, the possibility for Senators to become influenced and lose their objectivity by other sources is a risk. There would certainly be an objection to this aspect of Senate reform by the current members of the Upper House. However, in order to ensure that Senate reform takes place, both the provinces and the current Senators must make sacrifices for the benefit of the country as a whole. Therefore, the first election will be to fill half of the Senate. By some form of lottery, one half will be forced to resign their position, and will have the opportunity to run in the election. After three years, the other half will follow suit and resign their position. This will allow a slow filtering out of the old school appointed Senators, to be replaced with elected ones.
There would be eight Senators elected by each province, regardless of the size of the province and its population. As well, eight Senators would be given to the territories. Each province would be divided into four constituencies, with two Senators coming from each constituency. The Yukon and North West Territories would be combined, and divided into four constituencies as well. Each Senator has an equal voice in the Senate, allowing for equal representation for each constituency and each province. In total, eighty-eight Senators would be elected. Eighty-eight voices in the Senate are more than enough to represent the constituencies, saving Canadians the unnecessary costs of addition salaries. Although Canada is a large country, it still has a low population. Even the United States, with ten times the population, maintains only one hundred Senators. With too many Senators there becomes the risk of having two Lower Houses. Despite being elected, however, the Senators would be given the mandate to act on behalf of the people in their constituencies, and would not be directly responsible to the people. In order to remain independent from the executive, it would be the responsibility of the Members of Parliament to present their constituents' viewpoints in the House of Commons. It is only through elections that the population can decide whether or not the Senators have fairly represented their constituencies.
The most difficult aspect to Senate reform deals with the functions of the new Upper House. Much like the United States, the Canadian Senate must have the power to introduce policy into the House of Commons as well as accepting bills. As a safeguard against a power hungry House of Commons, the Senate is also responsible for bringing up the interests of the country. By allowing the Senate this power, the issues are given more attention by both sides of the legislature. The Senate should still function in the same way as it has in the past, with the power to accept, amend or reject bills passed by the House of Commons. As before, a majority from both the Senate and the House of Commons is required to pass a bill into law, but in the case of a deadlock, the House of Commons should be able to override the Senate. When dealing with constitutional affairs, or, due to current issues involving Quebec, cultural affairs, there must be a sixty-five percent majority in the Senate. As well, veto power should be granted to the Senate in regards to constitutional issues. The Senate should maintain its system of committees, and continue to perform investigations into political affairs instead of royal commissions.
In order for Senate reform to be enacted, a majority of the provinces must vote for it. Each premier from each province, and a leader from each territory, gets one vote. Getting support for Senate reform from Ontario and Quebec will prove to be the most difficult challenge, for they have had the balance of power since Confederation. However, having mandatory Quebecois Senators is not possible in this reformed system. Since most of the debate recently has been over Quebec's recognition as a distinct society and protection of its culture, Quebec will certainly be opposed to having less power in the Senate, when in reality it desires more power. There is no clear way to appease the province of Quebec, and perhaps there never will be under any system. Senate reform is for the benefit of the entire country, and after all, the rest of Canada should have a say as to what transpires within her borders. As stated earlier, in order for there to be reform, many people, provinces and Senators alike, will have to make sacrifices. If Quebec is unhappy with the notion of Senate reform, but there is a majority vote for Senate reform, then Quebec is a member of the minority.
This proposal for Senate reform is a suggestion to improve the current state of the Senate. While many of these suggestions may not occur, the need for some form of Senate reform is crucial. Countries such as Poland and the United States have a more effective Senate, and therefore a more efficient government. With many questions about Canada's future left to be decided, what is more important than the state of the country's democratic system? After all, the government's purpose is to listen to the people and make decisions for the benefit of the people. Without Senate reform, the Canadian political structure may eventually crumble, much like an old house crumbles when its foundation has degraded. In order for Canada to survive in the twenty-first century, the old-school British system must be revamped, for it is outdated. Canada must cast aside old traditions and replace them with modern ideology and thought.
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