Academic journal article McGill Law Journal

Constitutionalizing the Senate: A Modest Democratic Proposal

Academic journal article McGill Law Journal

Constitutionalizing the Senate: A Modest Democratic Proposal

Article excerpt

The Senate Reference did not provide an ideal situation for clarifying the nature and limits of the power of constitutional reform in Canada. The facts gave the Court no choice but to recognize the fundamental role that the Senate plays in the Canadian constitutional order, and therefore to place some of its main features outside the scope of section 44 of the Constitution Act, 1982, even if they ran contrary to basic democratic values. For example, in order to explain that the implementation of consultative elections would alter the constitution's basic structure, the Court was forced to construe in a negative light the prospect of a democratically legitimate Senate. In this paper, rather than attack or defend bicameralism, we will argue in favour of attributing a democratically reconstituted Senate with the primary responsibility of reviewing the constitutionality of legislation (as opposed to acting as a chamber of "sober second thought" with respect to the policy decisions of the House of Commons). Such an approach, we suggest, would augment the overall democratic legitimacy of the constitutional order.

Le Renvoi relatif a la reforme du Senat n'etait pas l'occasion ideale pour la Cour supreme de clarifier la nature et les limites des pouvoirs en matiere de reforme constitutionnelle. La Cour n'avait d'autre choix que de reconnaitre le role essentiel que joue le Senat dans l'ordre constitutionnel canadien, et donc mettre certaines de ses caracteristiques essentielles a l'abri de la procedure de modification de l'article 44 de la Loi constitutionnelle de 1982, meme si ces caracteristiques sont en conflit avec les valeurs democratiques fondamentales. Par exemple, pour expliquer en quoi un regime d'elections consultatives transformerait la structure fondamentale de la Constitution, la Cour a du decrire de facon negative l'idee d'un Senat elu democratiquement. Dans cet article, plutot que d'attaquer ou defendre le bicameralisme, les auteurs plaident en faveur d'un Senat democratiquement constitue et dont le role principal serait d'examiner la constitutionnalite des mesures legislatives (et non simplement porter un << second regard attentif>> sur les projets et decisions de la Chambre des communes). Ils estiment qu'une telle approche favoriserait la legitimite democratique de l'ordre constitutionnel dans son ensemble.

Introduction
  I. The Impasse
 II. Of Tiered Amendment Rules
III. Of Basic Structures and Democracy
 IV. Upper Houses and Democratic Legitimacy
  V. The Senate as a Constitutional Reviewer
Conclusion

Introduction

The Senate Reference (1) did not provide an ideal situation for clarifying the nature and limits of constitutional change in Canada. The facts gave the Supreme Court little choice other than to recognize the fundamental role that the Senate plays in the Canadian constitutional order and, therefore, to place some of its main features outside the scope of unilateral action by the federal government under its exclusive authority to "make laws amending the Constitution of Canada in relation to the executive government of Canada or the Senate and House of Commons." (2) Perhaps more controversially, in order to prevent the implementation of consultative elections that, according to the judges, would fundamentally alter the architecture of the constitution, (3) the Court was forced to construe the prospect of a democratically legitimate Senate in a negative light. This construction seems a somewhat perverse and unappealing way to proceed, especially if the constitution is intended to promote, not stymie, democratic improvement.

Of course, the democratic deficiencies of the Canadian Senate (for example, non-elected chamber, non-proportional representation of the provinces, long appointments, historical property qualifications, et cetera) are not unique; they have been widely shared by upper houses in other jurisdictions. Like the Supreme Court, modern and contemporary defenders of bicameralism have nevertheless attempted (with varying degrees of success) to present those democratic deficiencies as strengths: upper houses slow down the legislative process, avoid sudden legislative changes, protect otherwise potentially underrepresented minorities, force legislators to have second thoughts, and so on. …

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