Proportional representation needed for Senate reform

First published: October 30, 2008

If Canada hopes to remain a politically viable country in the future, it must seriously undertake electoral and parliamentary reform or risk losing any semblance of a democracy.

The writing on the wall could not be clearer, as only 59 per cent of eligible voters turned out across Canada and only 57,000 people turned out in Northumberland-Quinte West, down from 62,870 in 2006. Certainly, there was a chorus of cries for electoral reform from Fair Vote Canada, as well as the NDP locally, calling for a change to the system.

These groups seek to create some kind of proportional representation that would better reflect the overall popular vote, as compared to the first-past-the-post system currently in place where the winner takes all. If there were a proportional system in place for the election last week, a coalition of Liberals, NDP and Green Party members would have won 161 of 308 seats, leaving the Tories in the opposition benches rather than forming a minority government.

Critics of a proportional system like to point to the paralysis created through this kind of electoral configuration. Germany often finds its parliament in a stalemate while Italy has governments that rise and fall on a nearly constant basis. In the news this week, the Israeli Knesset was forced to go to the polls because leaders were unable to strike a coalition, leaving vital peace talks with Palestine in limbo and possibly a chance for a important resolution in the balance.

There is an opportunity to bring about meaningful reform, while maintaining the strengths of the current system. It is time to move forward on Senate reform by changing the way it is selected.

Only days after the election was finished, Prime Minister Stephen Harper started talking about Senate reform. Exasperated with the lack of action by provinces to elect senators, he threatened to appoint them. With 17 vacancies and another 17 retirements coming up, it would mean the Tories would be able to dominate the upper chamber by a slight margin.

During the election campaign, Harper said he would move to abolish the Senate if reform would not take place. He had already put legislation in place to limit a Senator’s term to eight years, but it stalled when the election was called. Previously, there were discussions about electing the Senate.

These proposals are misdirected and do not represent any progress towards a more democratic system. One should become more worried, when a politician gets to appoint anyone, since it merely retains the practice of patronage, which is one of the major reasons the Senate is no longer relevant or meaningful. And any system that directly elects Senators simply repeats the faults of the current electoral process.

Instead, it might be worthy to consider a proportional system for the Senate, leaving the first-past-the-post system for Parliament. This means the 89 seats that currently exist would be divided as a percentage of the popular vote. This would still give citizens a member of parliament and someone to hold directly accountable for local matters. Whereas the Senate would be transformed into a more meaningful body of sober second through that would reflect Canadians’ wishes.

To arrive at those who would serve in the senate, Senators would be elected from within each political party. This would serve two purposes. First, a race between party members to sit in the Senate democratizes the selection process, moving it away from patronage appointments. Second, it would provide an opportunity for each political party to be more active and engaging in between elections. The struggle to elect 89 people from within a party would provide ample opportunity to debate policy, recruit members and energize them internally. Currently riding associations almost go dormant in-between elections with memberships skyrocketing only for candidate selection. It would be very important to have fixed election dates to allow the parties to meet this requirement.

From a voter’s perspective, it would mean casting a ballot based on conscience rather than being strategic. A single vote would play two ways. Even if you knew the Green Party might not win the seat locally, the vote would not be wasted, since it would contribute to a potential seat within the Senate. Of course, there would need to be a minimum percentage of the total votes to be given one seat, say five or 10 per cent of the popular vote. This would keep out fringe parties and hopefully limit the number of federal parties.

The Prime Minister is correct to be anxious to reform the Senate. It is a haven for political appointees and, while it does have an important legislative purpose, it is not functioning properly. Any proposals to directly elect or somehow appoint Senators are merely folly. Elections would only create more paralysis and partisanship. Under a proportional kind of system these individuals could feel they were representing all Canadians from their political perspective, not just one riding.

This would strengthen our democracy, increase voter turn out and make each vote count. It would mean the chamber of sober second thought might just achieve its mandate rather than be a punch line to a very bad joke.

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