Public interest in the Senate is currently stronger than it ever has been. Nearly everyone agrees that our present Senate is unsatisfactory. Political parties such as the New Democratic Party want the outright abolition of the Senate while others such as the Reform Party want to elect it. Since the Senate has not been considered an effective forum for regional representation-which was one of the reasons for its creation-many Canadians have wondered what reforms would allow it to perform that role better. The objectives of Senate reform are based on one idea, that of enhancing the quality of regional representation of politicians within national political institutions. Through the implementation of a Triple E Senate (Equal, Effective, Elected), a federal principle can be constructed into the national government and therefore provide a check on the majority in the House of Commons.
A major function of second chambers is legislative review. This means that bills coming from the other house are examined, revised and sometimes delayed. Unless regional representation is included, the legislative review function does not examine the purpose of proposed legislation, but instead attempts to improve it technically. In federal systems, the legislative review function of the Senate is only secondary to their role in providing for representation for various parts of the country in the national legislature. Representation is selected in favour of the smaller regions, in contrast to the first chamber, where representation is always based on population. Therefore the functions associated
with the Senate are legislative review and the representation of the various regions on a different basis from the lower house.
The Fathers of Confederation originally intended for the Senate to play the legislative review role. As sir John A. MacDonald said, the Senate was to have "the sober second thought in legislation" and should not be "a mere chamber for registering the decrees of the Lower House". They also agreed on a particular qualification of Senators, which was intended to help them act as a check against the majority in the Lower House. This qualification has remained unchanged since 1867, but its practical meaning has long been discarded.
The other major role meant for the Senate was to preserve what MacDonald called "sectional interests". It is believed that this agreement about representation in the Senate was the main factor that allowed the Canadian federation to be formed. The Senate has functioned quite effectively as a house of legislative review up to the present time, but its intended role in regional representation has not been as effectively performed.
A major reason for this ineffectiveness is the method of appointment. By having the federal government alone appoint Senators and for such long terms (until the age of
seventy-five), the Senate's ability to represent the regions of Canada has been weakened. During long appointments, the responsiveness to the views and concerns of the represented is not always guaranteed. There is also no obligation to account to their respective regions and their representation is not put to any public test. Even if Senators did perform an adequate role as representatives, the public might not see it in the light.
The implementation of a Senate which is elected rather than appointed would ensure that representatives were more responsive to the public. It would also give the Senate the authority to exercise the substantial powers given to it by the Canadian Constitution. Any political institution can obtain formal or legal powers, but if the public does not want them to use it, these powers may not be exercised. In addition, most Canadians have reservations about appointments to a legislative body for such a long term in this, a more democratic age than when the Senate was established.
Senators in our Upper House do not really represent anyone except for the one who appointed them-the Prime Minister. It is because of this reason that they cannot effectively express the views of anyone since their appointment lacks legitimacy in our democratic age. However, when Senators criticize and delay the legislative process, they
only remind us of how much could be accomplished effectively if only they represented the people who had elected them.
Another important function of second chambers in federal systems like Canada's is the representation of the regions on a basis other than representation by population. When different people from different regions wish to achieve a common goal while protecting their respective regionally-based differences against majority rule, a federal system of government is utilized. When this is the case, the Upper House is seen as a political check on the rule of a simple majority. It also reflects the diverse interests of the regions of the federation to the lower chamber.
In countries like Canada where there are two distinct linguistic groups geographically concentrated within its borders, protection of the interests of the minority group can be established through specially weighted representation of the political units in the second chamber. It was because of this reason that the French-speaking Fathers of Confederation sought equal representation in the Senate for the three original regions (Quebec, Ontario and the Maritimes). This would balance out the House of Commons where there was no guarantee of proportional francophone representation.
As it stands today, the Senate has 104 seats, which are divided into 4 divisions. Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes and the western provinces each share 24 seats. Newfoundland has 6 seats while the Yukon and Northwest Territories have 1 each. In the case of Quebec, 24 regions were created in order to have a balance of anglophone and francophone representatives. Under the proposed Triple E Senate, there would be 6 representatives from each and every province while the territories had one each. This would provide for a new 62 member Senate which would be elected at the same time as Members of Parliament. The only exception would be Quebec where Senators would be hand-chosen by the National Assembly.
The principle of equality simply means that every province or region would be equally represented in the Senate regardless of its population. The need for equal representation arises when provinces like Ontario are compared to Prince Edward Island, Since Ontario's population is so huge compared to many other provinces, it along with Quebec could automatically become the majority in the Commons when their interests were similar. The comparison between Ontario and Prince Edward Island might be a bit extreme, but what it really equates to is that Alberta and other provinces cannot have the same powers as Ontario and Quebec. With equal representation, no province would have to worry about being outvoted by such a wide margin that the interests of the citizens were completely ignored.
The Government of Canada stresses the importance in strengthening the role of the Senate in representing people from all parts of the country. Equal representation allows the Parliament to speak and act with greater authority on behalf of all Canadians. Meanwhile, a delicate equilibrium must be established if the Senate's role in regional representation is to be upgraded while maintaining the effectiveness of Parliament.
At the time of its creation, the Senate was assigned extensive formal authority and with only two qualifications, it would be equal in power to the House of Commons. Not until recently were limitations placed on the Upper Chamber's powers as a result of constitutional amendments. However, even today, no federal legislation can be passed until it has been passed by majorities in both the Senate and the House of Commons. The problem of the present Senate is not a lack of power, but the lack of confidence and legitimacy that would allow it to maintain and use that power. The Canadian Upper House has all the formal legal power imaginable, including a complete veto on any and all government legislation. Even with so much power, the Senate has felt no justification in defying the Lower House ever since the widespread democratic sentiment in Canada not long after Confederation.
Another reason for the Senate's past ineffectiveness is due to the fact that Senate appointments are partisan in nature. The majority in the Upper House would usually
correspond to the majority in the Lower House since appointments were made by the Prime Minister. The House of Commons will continue to be the subject to tight party discipline, whereas it can be less strict in the Senate, since it was designed so that it does not control the fate of the government. Another reason is because the majority of amendments to bills have been introduced to the Senate after it was already approved by the House of Commons. Therefore, it did not really matter whether or not there was a majority in both chambers by the same party.
One of the benefits of the Triple E Senate is that it will definitely have a positive effect on the rest of Canada's political institutions. If the House of Commons was to have a reformed Senate watching over it, it would have to work harder, implement more compromises into their policies and this would make it that much more effective. The regional interests and views on national policy can also be dealt with by a reformed Senate, thus allowing provincial powers to focus on their respective mandates instead of just campaigning on national policies.
Regionalism is a major force in Canada, one that pervades almost all aspects of our political lives. Therefore, it is extremely important that a means of expression is available to us in our national institutions. The Triple E Senate builds a federal principle into the national government which then provides a more effective regional balance on the majority rule of the House of Commons. More specifically, a reformed Senate will enhance the
visibility of provincial and regional representation in Ottawa, create more effective territorial checks and balances within the legislative process and improve the credibility and legitimacy of the national government in disaffected regions of Canada. Ten years ago, the concept of a Triple E Senate was unimaginable, but it is very much on the minds of Canadians these days. Due to insufficient regional and provincial representation at the national level , Canadians are now asking whether we could not follow the example of other federations by strengthening the second chamber of our national Parliament.
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Dyck, Rand. Canadian Politics: Critical Approaches. Scarborough: Nelson Canada, 1996.
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Kunz, F.A. The Modern Senate of Canada / 1925-1963. Toronto: University of Toronto
MacGuigan, The Hon. Mark. Reform of the Senate: A Discussion Paper. Ottawa:
Publications Canada, 1983.
MacKay, Robert A. The Unreformed Senate of Canada. Toronto: Oxford University
White, Randall. Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada.
Toronto: Dundurn Press Ltd., 1991.
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