SenateChamber

Balancing Canada’s constitution: a proposal for Senate reform (pt.2)

(The following is part 2 of a two-part post by guest blogger JD Mussel. You can read part 1 here. 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 2: The specifics of Senate reform and their effects

In my previous post I discussed the problems of majoritarianism and the resulting executive dominance in Canada’s system of government. In this post I will explore in detail my specific recommendations for reform, as well as the way in which they would empower the Senate to fulfil its role of balancing out the power of the government and holding it to account, all the while better representing Provincial interests.

Creating bicameral incongruence

An interesting question is by what formula the Provinces should be represented in the Senate; it would be reasonable to think that a different basis of representation, such as equal representation for each province, could make the partisan composition of the Senate become incongruent to that of the Commons. However, such change to the current situation is not critical, much less sufficient for that end. Instead, the decisive factor would be the method of appointment or election, which must be one which makes a one-party majority very unlikely.

One way to appoint Senators that is likely to both create intercameral incongruence and a ‘Provinces’ chamber’ would be appointment by Provincial governments or legislatures. The main drawback of this solution would be an entanglement of provincial and federal politics, eliminating the separation between the two which is one of the advantages of federalism. People would no longer be able to vote in provincial elections without effecting the federal government. In the long term, this strongly incentivises federal parties to take over control of the provincial party systems, which would severely undermine any role the Senate may at first have as an agent of the Provinces’ interests.

The way forward would appear to be direct elections. In order to prevent governments from winning upper-house majorities – the absolutely crucial part of the equation – the electoral system should be some form of proportional representation. In order to avoid excessive party domination, it would be a good idea to choose a candidate-based PR system, such as the single transferable vote (STV). This fully candidate-based proportional system would inject a dose of intraparty competition that is not only likely to weaken the parties, but strengthen the role of provincial interests. The way for candidates to compete against other candidates of the same party is to differentiate themselves by catering to particularistic interests of the electoral district, in this case – the Provinces. Meanwhile, the degree of choice voters have under STV in ranking candidates from various parties (very much unlike the first-part-the-post used for elections to the House of Commons) is also commendable, and is more likely to result in the election of independents than other PR systems. The result of this electoral system should be a diverse representation of the electorate, with a majority for any single party becoming a highly unlikely prospect.

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

The next question is the election cycle. The best possibility would be to simply to hold Senate elections concurrently with elections to the House of Commons. Such elections would, however, best be staggered, with half of the Senate being elected at each general election, for two main reasons: firstly, it would increase the Senate’s independence by reducing the prime minister’s power to threaten dissolution to one that concerns only the more senior half. Secondly, in combination with proportional representation, it would make it more difficult for a government to achieve a majority in the upper house. Under PR, a party needs close to or over 50% of the vote to win a majority of seats contested – therefore, if Senate elections were staggered, two successive landslide wins would be necessary for a single party to win a Senate majority. Furthermore, longer terms may lead to longer-term thinking in the Senate as a result of the delay in concern for re-election. For these reasons one-half of each Province’s Senators should be elected at each federal parliamentary election, which would currently mean a term of no longer than eight years, while the minimum would depend on the frequency of elections.

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Breaking Deadlock

Currently, the Senate’s full power is used only sparingly, due to the way in which it is appointed; there can be no doubt that an elected Senate would be much more assertive. For enabling an effective role for the Senate in review of legislation and government actions the crucial factor is that the Senate retain a large degree of power over legislation. The only reason governments have to co-operate with a Senate’s accountability measures, such as inquiry or information disclosure order is the latter’s potential threat of declining to pass government legislation until the government complies. A house of review with no legislative power would be ineffective, as it could simply be ignored. Likewise, a house that chooses to not exercise its legislative power is also a poor check. Therefore an assertive body of senators is essential to allow the senate to fulfil is role a check on government power.

Nevertheless, for good and effective government, complete deadlock should be avoided. A good mechanism would therefore be needed, in order to resolve disagreements between the Houses and to encourage Senators to work towards a compromise instead of being obstructive. The current formal powers of the Senate are almost symmetrical to that of the House of Commons, with only very few limits, specifically regarding initiative and amendment of money bills. A deadlock-breaking mechanism exists, in a form inspired by the British Constitution: additional appointments can be made (on the prime minister’s advice), limited to either 4 or 8 extra senators. As a deadlock breaker it is simply a way for the government party to come closer to having a majority in the Senate. If the Senate were elected, it is possible that governments will get into the habit of making these appointments at the start of each session, effectively a government bonus in the Senate which has no place in the reformed institution proposed here.

Actually, a certain deadlock-breaking mechanism is already inherent in the election cycle proposed above. Should the two houses disagree on a bill, and the government is well-positioned in the opinion polls to win an election, there’s an incentive for the prime minister to advise a ‘one-and-a-half’ dissolution, whereby the House of Commons and half of the Senate face new elections. This threat would be a potent bargaining tool in the hands of the PM, while also poses its own risks for him. A government which is not faring well in the polls will almost certainly not make use of this avenue. In such a case, there is a greater threat of deadlock; seeing as the Senate can block supply, there is even a threat that the opposition in the Senate will try to bring down the government and force an election. There is a good case for removing the Senate’s power to block supply, which effectively makes the government depend on both houses for funding. It can be argued that the government should only be responsible to one house to avoid the deleterious effects of instability, not to mention government shutdowns. Secondly, one could argue for removal in the interest of the financial efficiency that one-party government promotes; if such a government must compromise with other parties to pass its budget, this potential will decrease. However, a check on the government’s finances is as important as any other for the Senate for checking the government’s power and keeping it accountable.  I would suggest some limitation to the Senate’s power to block supply, so that it cannot veto the bare essentials necessary to fund government, but so that it can still veto radical changes to fiscal policy, including such things as tax increases.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

The proposals

Proposal 1: that the Senate be directly elected, using proportional representation by means of STV

Proposal 2: that elections to the Senate be staggered, with one-half elected at each general election; Senators’ terms last from election to the one after next.

Proposal 3: that the Senate’s power to block supply be somewhat constrained, to the effect of preventing government shutdowns as a result of deadlock.

Conclusion: curbing the excesses of the Westminster system

Some readers of this blog will note similarities between the proposal outlined here and the system existing in Australia on the federal level as well as in several states, and indeed, the Australian experience was the inspiration. As in Canada, the Australian government utterly dominates the lower house; but unlike its Canadian counterpart, the Australian Senate, elected through PR, has a very effective review role. The Australian Senate not only improves and moderates legislation, but also holds the government accountable and transparent in various ways, creating checks and balances not present in most versions of the Westminster system.

The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.
The Australian system of government, the inspiration for these proposals. Note well the intercameral incongruence, which is created through the use of PR for Senate elections.

In all probability, a Canadian Senate reconstituted along the lines described above would be similarly empowered to increase scrutiny and oversight, carrying out inquiries and ordering the disclosure of information from the government, thereby checking executive power and increasing transparency. In the new Senate, devoid of a government majority, governments will have to negotiate with other parties to pass much of their legislation. Most proposals should pass with no significant clashes, or with improvements arising from bipartisan collaboration, but more controversial bills will have to be toned down and negotiated to have a chance of success.

Due to the more frequent need to secure compromises, the government’s ex-post accountability before the electorate would be watered down somewhat. Nonetheless, majority governments will remain in a very powerful position; the Senate will be able to constrain a government, but not to force one out. Since the other parties will remain unable to either remove such a government, or pass anything without its concurrence, a majority government would be partly responsible for any proposal that does pass, keeping accountability strong. The situation would of course be different, as it is now, in the case of a minority or ‘hung’ parliament. Such scenarios may sometimes prove trickier for governments than today, but in most cases, if a majority can be secured for some bill in the House, the same parties’ support will also be sufficient in the Senate.

In the long term, elections to the two houses may become strongly defined by the system. Elections to the House of Commons would become more strictly about the choice of government, with more people likely to vote strategically, voting their true preference in the Senate election.  Due to its electoral system, the Senate will almost certainly become more representative of the electorate than the House of Commons. Among its ranks there will be small parties which have great difficulty in capturing seats in the lower house. Such small parties (and independents) will begin focussing on elections to the Senate, where they will have a real chance to influence policy. They may also come to emphasise their role in making the Senate the place where the government is held to account, as the Australian Democrats did with their slogan ‘keep the bastards honest!’ Meanwhile, for the big parties, the distinguishing element of Senate elections would become competition among candidates of the same party (under STV). In order to differentiate themselves, a party’s candidates are will likely compete with each other in terms of bringing various benefits to their province.

Of course, this is not the whole picture; an elected Senate, where the government is permanently in minority, would fundamentally transform Canada’s political equation. Executive dominance, largely the unfortunate side-effect of the Westminster system’s majoritarianism, would be remedied while preserving most of its benefits. While the government, in most cases, should be able to continue to control the House, opposition parties in the Senate will have not only the power, but also the mandate to hold governments to account and subject their policies to a ‘sober second thought’. This, I am convinced, would be the best way of curbing the excesses of the Westminster system – by accomplishing what few of the participants in the FPTP-vs.-PR debate seem to contemplate: an elegant compromise between the accountability of the former and the representativeness of the latter.

Suggested further reading

Platypus and Parliament: The Australian Senate in Theory and Practice

Accountability Versus Government Control: the Effect of Proportional Representation

From breaking governments to a brake on government: a new bicameralism in Victoria?

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