Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt. 1)

(The following is part 1 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. JD is a Dutch-Israeli undergraduate student at Leiden University College in the Hague, the Netherlands. He is majoring in policy science with a focus on constitutional design. He frequently contributes to the political science blog Fruits and Votes. JD’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of this blog’s administrator.)

Part 1: Curbing the excesses of majoritarianism


Canada has a parliamentary form of government, using first-past-the post to elect the members of its confidence chamber, the House of Commons. Despite the recent period of minority governments from 2004 to 2011, minorities are the exception in Canada as elections usually result in a Commons majority for one party. House majorities don’t usually result from majorities in vote terms, but are manufactured by the majoritarian first-past-the-post electoral system. The upper house, the Senate, is formally co-equal but is appointed on advice of the prime minister. While this doesn’t always mean that the Senate has a government majority, it has usually made the Senate passive even in times of a split parliament (different majorities in each house) as it usually defers to the greater legitimacy of the elected House of Commons. Meanwhile, the Constitution’s division of power between the federal level and the provinces may be said to favour the federal level, particularly in light of the fact that the Supreme Court is appointed by the federal government. Canada therefore has a constitution which can be characterized as being as close to Westminster’s as possible for a federal country with judicial review, having a lower house elected using a majoritarian electoral system, with few checks on the government’s power.

election chart
The electoral mechanics of first-past-the-post illustrated: in 2011 the Conservative Party won a House majority on just under forty percent of the vote. Not a representative result, but one offering ex-post accountability.

The main advantages of Canada’s system of government is that the way in which governments are formed flows directly from election results, providing a strong sense of accountability. Voters generally have the choice between two parties that could potentially form a government, and the party that receives the most votes usually receives a working majority to do so. Canada does not have a two-party system, but there has been a two-party alternation in government. When voters rally behind one opposition party, they can replace an unpopular government with relative ease. As a result of the system’s concentration of power, it is easier for Canadian governments to act decisively, an advantage in a crisis as well as a virtue for the democratic process, as it allows parties to more faithfully stick to their election promises. But much more important is the accountability this affords: majority governments, not having to compromise with other parties, have wide latitude to carry out their election promises, and can consequently be held accountable for its actions at the next election. It is far more straightforward to assign blame to the single party that forms government than it is in the context of a coalition or even a minority government.

The problem

The main drawback of Canada’s system of government is the lack of a check on the power of the government, a government rarely formed on true majority support. As a result of the development of party discipline, which is as strong in Canada as in any parliamentary regime, ‘responsibility’ to parliament is almost symbolic. The government so dominates parliament that one might almost say that the true relationship is the opposite: that the House of Commons is responsible to the government, which can dissolve it at any time, and which can order its parliamentary majority to pass laws with few constraints additional to that of public opinion. Some have gone so far as to call it an ‘elective dictatorship’, and there’s some truth to that. This excessive concentration of power in the federal executive has brought about polarising decisions, sharp swings in policy from one government to the next, as well as clashes between the federal government and the provinces. The case could be made that part of the problem is that Canadian government is too centralised, with no actor with an effective mandate to represent provincial interests at the federal level.  But the broader underlying issue is the shortage of actors of any type that would check the government and balance Canadian politics. As Madison wrote in Federalist no. 51, ‘A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions’. Though the danger of a lack of checks and balances may not have fully materialised yet, the power of the executive should not remain unconstrained, particularly in light of the fact that it rarely rests on majority support. On the whole therefore, what Canada’s constitutional situation calls for is more veto players: political actors with the power to act as a check on the party in government.

Reform alternatives and a proposed framework

There are a number of conceivable approaches to this question. One possible way of increasing the number of veto players would be to change the electoral system for the House of Commons to some form of proportional representation. Minority or ‘hung’ parliaments would become the norm, and parties would need to secure other parties’ support in order to remain in government. As currently happens as a result of hung parliament, the first governments under this system will be minority governments, but coalitions are likely to form eventually. By increasing the number of parties necessary, in most cases, to form a government and make policy, this would mostly solve the current ‘elected dictatorship’ and policy instability problems. However, this would come at the cost of the main benefits of the current system. The current efficient choice of government at the polls, the decisiveness of election results and resulting accountability and decisive policymaking would greatly diminish under proportional representation in the House of Commons. Besides, while proportional representation may ensure that no party achieves a majority in the House, it is no guarantee for effective review. A coalition government may be constrained by the divergent agendas of its constituent parties, but once coalition partners agree on a broad legislative programme, they can dominate the House to a degree not much lesser than a single-party majority government.

There is however a different option for reform, providing a new veto player by reforming a different institution: the Senate. In order for it to form an effective check on government power, its partisan makeup needs to become incongruent with that of the House: the parties in opposition should have a majority in the Senate. The Senate could then become an effective ‘house of review’, empowered not only to improve legislation and moderate policy but also hold governments to account. A secondary aim would be to give Senators institutional incentives to stand up for provincial interests and making the Senate into an institution geared to protect the provinces against federal encroachments, just as the ‘triple-E Senate’ campaign prevalent in Western Canada has in mind. Besides, it would put an end to the current patronage and lack of accountability in the current Senate.

For these reasons, the path forward should be in reforming the Senate. The primary goal should be to prevent the party in government from attaining a majority in that chamber, with a secondary goal of having Senators chosen in such a way that offers some incentive for protecting provincial interests. The aim is to strengthen the position of the Senate vis-à-vis the government of the day in order to limit the existing executive dominance over the system, thus transforming bicameralism into a source of checks and balances in Canada’s constitution. My next post will explore and identify more specifically how this goal would best be fulfilled and what Canadian politics would look like after the change.

(Part 2)

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