Electing Senators by the Single Transferable Vote

By Hynes, Aaron | Canadian Parliamentary Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Electing Senators by the Single Transferable Vote


Hynes, Aaron, Canadian Parliamentary Review


Calls for the democratization of the Canadian Senate began before the ink was dry on the British North America Act, and have intensified as Canada's democratic standards have evolved. In recent decades, a multitude of commissions and committees have recommended every conceivable means of selecting Senators. The current federal government has introduced legislation "to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate," and to limit Senator's terms of office to eight years. This article examines some recent proposals and suggests that the best means of selecting Senators would be by election using the Single Transferable Vote.

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The Fathers of Confederation described two essential roles for the Senate, neither of which would be served by a unicameral parliament. First, the Senate is intended as a forum in which distinct regional sentiments and interests may bear upon the direction of the whole federation. Virtually every system of federal government includes a bicameral legislature, one of the two houses being dedicated to regional representation.

The Senate's second constitutional role, which is highly pertinent to the process for selecting Senators, is to provide, in Sir John A. Macdonald's oft-quoted words, "sober second thought in legislation"--a check against the political impulses of the majority in the House of Commons.

By giving a voice to political minorities, the Senate is also meant to counterbalance the dominance of the political majority that dominates the lower house. It currently fails in this role because the current Senate lacks the authority and legitimacy to right the balance of power within parliament.

Senator Lowell Murray has argued,

   Over the years, the conventions have grown up
   under which we normally defer to the elected
   House. We rarely defeat a legislative measure
   except in certain extreme circumstances. Even
   when we amend a bill, if the House of Commons
   insists several times on rejecting our amendment,
   normally we take the position that, at the end of
   the day, the House of Commons prevails.., an
   elected Senate would be bound by none of those
   conventions. (1)

However, the Senate was clearly not intended to meekly defer to the House of Commons. Sir John A. Macdonald declared,

   There would no use of an Upper House, if it did
   not exercise, when it thought proper, the right
   of opposing or amending or postponing the
   legislation of the Lower House. It would be of
   no value whatever were it a mere chamber for
   registering the decrees of the Lower House. (2}

Canada's Parliament was designed to include a Senate with real authority, but that authority has been lost as the Senate has fallen increasingly short of advancing democratic standards. Therefore, Canada's Senate is today criticized as an impediment to democracy if it attempts to check the elected House of Commons, and as useless when it merely defers to the lower house. As Senator Carl Goldenberg lamented,

   If we enact legislation speedily, we are called
   rubber stamps. If we exercise the constitutional
   authority which the Senate possesses under the
   British North America Act, we are told that we are
   doing something that we have no right to do. (3)

Making the Senate an Elected Chamber

The solution to this dilemma is as evident as it is difficult for some to accept: the Senate must conform to modern democratic standards. Only when legitimized by elections will the Senate revive its moribund authority to check the House of Commons. This has been recognized in several major studies:

The 1984 Molgat-Cosgrove report called for an elected Senate to "ensure that Senators have more political authority." (4)

In 1985, Alberta's Select Committee asserted that only an elected Senate "would enjoy legitimacy and would be able to exercise fully the significant political and legislative powers necessary to make a valuable contribution to the Canadian Parliament.

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