An elected Canadian Senate is, by itself, a democratic disaster

Update (Dec. 6, 2015): It now appears, in the face of Justin Trudeau’s modest Senate reform efforts, that Christy Clark is aware of the same issues I discuss below. Good lord: Christy and I agree!
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The title seem paradoxical. How could electing the Canadian Senate – arguably a den of patronage and corruption – be a democratic disaster? The answer, in short, is that without a change to its current seat configuration, the current Senate is actually preferable to Stephen Harper’s long-standing goal of a Senate that is elected, given term limits, but is not redistributed in terms of seats.

The problem lies in how the Canadian Senate seats are allotted. Ostensibly designed to represent Canadian regions, the Senate apportions an “equal” number of seats to the West, Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes (with a handful of seats for the North). But in reality the seats are distributed per province, and the chart below shows how profoundly undemocratic that distribution is:

Province or Territory Number of Senators Population per Senator (April 2013)
British Columbia 6 775,001
Alberta 6 660,890
Ontario 24 565,988
Quebec 24 337,462
Manitoba 6 212,890
Saskatchewan 6 182,313
Nova Scotia 10 94,502
NFLD and Labrador 6 85,595
New Brunswick 10 75,404
Northwest Territories 1 43,349
Prince Edward Island 4 36,441
Yukon 1 36,418
Nunavut 1 34,023
Total/Average 105 334,681

British Columbia’s and Alberta’s interests are clearly under-represented in the current Senate. The province of Prince Edward Island, with a population less than Kelowna, still has two-thirds of the representation of BC (and the other three western provinces, as well). New Brunswick has two-thirds more power in the Senate than BC, and almost 10 times the influence per resident. Even Ontario and Quebec have proportionally much more power than BC and Alberta. While this might have made sense in 1867, it now utterly contravenes a basic principle of representative democracy: representation by population. The idea of representation by region is a red herring – Senators are designated according to the province they represent (except, perhaps, Pamela Wallin) and limited by the number of Senators for each province; as a result, the proportional representation of a province must be central to any argument about Senate reform.

Of course, up to now, the Senate has been a proverbial rubber stamp, so Senate seat distribution has been relatively unimportant. But that would change if Prime Minister Harper succeeds in creating an elected Senate. If that were to happen, the Senate would now have the sheen of democratic legitimacy. And that is problematic because the Senate has, according to the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982, virtually the same powers as the House of Commons. While it can’t introduce money bills nor permanently block constitutional amendments, it can do virtually anything else the House can, including vetoing House legislation. Only the lack of electoral legitimacy has held the Senate back from exercising its considerable powers (though even with issues like abortion, the Senate has occasionally intervened with a veto).  So giving  the Senate democratic legitimacy would empower a branch of government that is heavily weighted against British Columbian and Albertan interests. It would have disastrous implications for the political interests of the two westernmost provinces and for democratic legitimacy across the country. B.C. and/or Alberta would be permanently and unfairly disadvantaged, without even the hope that population shifts could alter the balance of power, like it might in the House of Commons. No wonder it’s so vexing and disturbing to see certain British Columbian politicians support such a politically disastrous policy.

At this point, the Harper government awaits a Supreme Court “reference” judgment on whether he can proceed unilaterally without the provinces’ support. Given the problems above, the best outcome is that Harper cannot proceed, or that abolition – long the policy of the Official Opposition – is permissible. Either option is preferable to a legitimate and empowered but maldistributed Canadian Senate.

 

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