The Canadian Senate II - Balancing the House


Previous Article: The Sleeping Giant

I have already said that Canada is a sound democracy, so why alter the Senate? Well, "sound" is not the same thing as "perfect". Nothing is perfect, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it. Although the Canadian public's disconnect with its political system isn't as bad as that seen in the United States, there are those that believe that the current system is irrelevant to them; that their vote means nothing. When a government can act with impunity after being elected by only 40% of the electorate, when things get rammed through the House and Senate without proper debate, why bother to vote?

The Senate has been called a retirement home for aging politicians. It's an easy target for accusations of government waste. You can advocate, as the Toronto Sun does, that the Senate be abolished, saving at least $8 million per year, but that's a simplistic solution. The Senate can be so much more. It can, for instance, redress the flaws of the House of Commons. It is designed to balance the influence of the House with another way of looking at legislation, so why not build on this concept?

The House of Commons comprises of over 300 members of parliament who run for office in one of a corresponding number of districts (called ridings). If they win their riding, they "take their seat" in Parliament. This system is supposed to produce a House of Commons comprised of Members of Parliament from all over the country. Wherever you live, you have your Member of Parliament. You go to this man or this woman to air whatever grievance you have, and your M.P. is supposed to take this matter to Parliament in Ottawa.

In general, the system works well. Most Canadians know that they can approach their Member of Parliament and, most of the time, their grievance is addressed. But, in practise, people do not vote for individual members of parliament. The MPs names might be on the ballot, but people pay more attention to each candidate's party affiliation.

Party politics makes voting easier. Here's a person: he's NDP. He's probably a democratic socialist who favours strong programs to help the poor and to protect the environment. He may support higher taxes. Here's a person: he's Conservative. He's probably centre-right, favouring slightly smaller government, but not as harsh a neo-conservative as this member of the Canadian Alliance. You get the idea.

The problem is, in each riding, there may be four or five candidates running. There is only one election, and the candidate who gets the most votes wins the seat, end of story. The election results for one riding could be 37% for the Liberal candidate, 25% for the Conservative candidate, 20% for the Alliance candidate and 15% for the NDP candidate (with 3% of the vote going to other candidates), but the Liberal would still win. If this voting pattern held up this way all across the country, the Liberals could win 100% of the seats in the House of Commons with only 37% of the votes nationwide.

This usually doesn't happen, but strange things have occurred before. In Ontario, Bob Rae's NDP got over 60% of the seats in provincial parliament with just 37% of the vote. Moreover, in the federal election of 1993, the Conservatives ended up with 20% of the vote, but because that vote was evenly distributed nationwide, they took just 2 seats out of 301 while the Reform Party (now the Canadian Alliance) took 52 seats with the same number of votes. Their support was concentrated in Western Canada.

So, Canada's first past the post system promotes a plurality government, not a majority government. In the past, this has discouraged extremism and has promoted a more stable nation. Recent election results, however, show that this system also rewards regional interests over national interests, and this has not helped national unity in the 1990s.

To fix this, some have suggested proportional representation. On the surface, it sounds simple enough: if a party gets 40% of the vote, it gets 40% of the seats. But to toss out one system for the other tosses out the baby with the bathwater. For one thing, who is my member of parliament under a proportional system? And again, the need to capture a plurality of votes is lost, allowing extremists to capture a handful of seats and grant themselves soapboxes. Hitler took power through proportional representation, after all; a fact the Germans recognize and respond to by requiring parties to win at least 5% of the vote before they're awarded a single seat in their parliament.

Herein lies the opportunity of the Senate: if it is supposed to balance off the power of the House and provide another way of looking at legislation, why not put the proportional representation here? And given that multiple seats would have to be awarded through province-wide elections anyway, it makes most sense to put proportional representation here. It would be one more way of balancing the flaws of one system while keeping their strengths.

Just electing the senators would be a substantial improvement to Canadian democracy. It would remove a chunk of power from the hands of our Prime Minister and place it with the people. The Senate would no longer be a house for retired political croneys and the Canadian public would take it more seriously. A proportionally elected Senate would more closely represent the political makeup of the country; Alberta would no longer be so resolutely behind the Canadian Alliance, and Ontario wouldn't be so solidly Liberal. Regional distinctions would fade (though would still show up in the House) and a national voice would be gathered.

So, I've talked about the opportunity an elected Senate represents for Canada. How do we go about achieving this? What pitfalls are in our path? In my next article, I'll discuss Canada's constitution as it relates to our Senate -- what can be easily changed, and what can't.

Finding the First

The episode of Buffy last night was okay. It started a little slow, frankly, but once the revelation that the First was among the proto-Slayers hit, things picked up nicely. I had asked how the writing crew intended to ramp down the intensity of the series in order to build up again for the grand finale, and I think they were successful in doing just that. Buffy pulled out an unexpected victory that should give the First pause. Both camps now retire and prepare for the next onslaught.

I'm also impressed on how well the production crew sold the nature of the threat. The First hasn't done much more than gloat, kill proto-Slayers and release the Ubervamp on Sunnydale, but it still seems threatening. Buffy defeated the Ubervamp in much the same way she defeats a normal vampire, but the fight felt a lot more intense than the standard Buffy vs. Vampire smackdown event. Good writing, directing and acting carries this show through some old ideas and has given them new lustre. My hat goes off to them.

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