More realistic Senate reform
Response to Brian Rock, “Would Canadians support a new, reformed, representative, elected, gender-equal, non-partisan Senate?” (Bulletin d’Aylmer, August 16).
Brian Rock's column (“Between a Rock and a Hard Place”) states the need to reform our federal parliamentary system, but his proposal has several weaknesses. First, under Canada's constitution, approval of the provinces is required for any significant change to the make-up of the Senate. More significantly, Mr Rock’s column compares the Canadian Senate with that of the US. This is meaningless, as Canada is a parliamentary democracy (PD), while the US is a congressional democracy (CD).
The differences are essential. In a PD, the executive branch is accountable to the legislative branch, and the head of government (Prime Minister - PM) is a member of the legislature. In a CD, the executive branch is separate from the legislative, and the head of government (President) is not a member of the legislature.
These differences are more than symbolic. In a congressional system, the president has more power than the PM of a PD. However, a PM has greater control of the actual legislative agenda, and legislation is usually passed into law more quickly. Also, party loyalty is more important in a PD, which results in less political acrimony. Most importantly, in a PD, the government must be able to withstand a vote of confidence.
These differences relate directly to the purpose and power of the different chambers of governance. In the US, the Senate represents interests of individual states. In Canada, the Senate is supposed to ensure minority rights are protected from the “tyranny of the
The issue of Senate reform is significant, but Canadians should look to other parliamentary systems (especially the Westminster system) rather than
congressional systems. For example, Australia has an elected Senate – elected by a complicated system of proportional voting. (Its lower house is elected by a first-past-the-post system – resulting in a redefinition of powers between the two chambers.) New Zealand has abolished its upper house completely, but half of its legislative members are elected on a proportional system, and half are elected on a first-past-the-post system. These governments represent a more realistic indication of what Senate reform is possible.
The point is not that we should adopt either the Australian or the New Zealand system, but as PD, they give us ideas of what is possible, much more so than by looking at the Congressional system. Senate reform must be done within a PD, not a CD. So when Canadians are looking at what other democracies have done, our comparisons must start with parliamentary systems.