Academic journal article McGill Law Journal

The Senate Reference: Constitutional Change and Democracy

Academic journal article McGill Law Journal

The Senate Reference: Constitutional Change and Democracy

Article excerpt

The Senate Reference is ultimately a decision about how democratic decision making ought to be conducted when the role and function of fundamental democratic institutions are themselves at stake. This case stands for the idea that unilateral decision making by Parliament is not permitted even if from a substantive standpoint the government's proposals are "more democratic" than the status quo. Consultative elections and senatorial term limits, for example, would arguably make the Senate a more representative and accountable body. Yet the Court held that such changes are subject to the Constitution's general amending formula, which means that Parliament cannot implement these changes on its own. This article suggests that the Court's interpretation of the amending procedures is based upon a deeper democratic commitment to ensuring dialogue and deliberation between and among the relevant stakeholders. The Court's approach has benefits and drawbacks. By setting itself up as the exclusive arbiter of the Constitution's "internal architecture" and the primary decisionmaker as to what constitutes an institution's "fundamental role and nature", the Court has enhanced its own authority over the evolution of the constitutional order while significantly narrowing the possibilities for constitutional change. While the Court's approach has the undeniable effect of making large-scale institutional reform difficult (if not impossible), the alternative is arguably worse. If it were possible for the government to unilaterally reform democratic institutions, then it could unilaterally reform them in an anti-democratic direction as well.

Le Renvoi sur la reforme du Senat concerne fondamentalement la maniere dont on prend des decisions dans un contexte democratique lorsque sont en jeu le role et la fonction memes d'une institution democratique de base. Cet arret incarne l'idee que les decisions unilaterales du parlement ne sont pas permises meme si, d'un point de vu substantif, les propositions du gouvernement sont << plus democratiques >> que le statu quo. Les elections consultatives et les mandats a duree limitee, par exemple, feraient du Senat un organe plus representatif et imputable. Toutefois, la Cour supreme a juge que de tels changements sont sujets a la formule d'amendement constitutionnel generale et donc que le parlement seul ne peut mettre en oeuvre de tels changements. Cet article suggere que l'interpretation donnee aux procedures d'amendement par la Cour supreme est fondee sur un engagement democratique plus profond au dialogue et a la deliberation parmi et entre les acteurs pertinents. Cette approche de la Cour supreme a des points et forts et faibles. S'etant etabli comme arbitre exclusif de << l'architecture interne >> de la constitution et comme decideur premier de ce qui constitue le << role et la nature fondamentale>> d'une institution, la Cour supreme a agrandi son autorite sur l'ordre constitutionnel tout en limitant les possibilites pour le changement constitutionnel. Et quoique l'approche de la Cour a pour effet indeniable de rendre difficile, voire impossible, la reforme institutionnelle a grande echelle, l'alternative est vraisemblablement pire. S'il etait possible pour le gouvernement de reformer les institutions democratiques unilateralement, le gouvernement pourrait alors reformer ces institutions dans des directions anti-democratiques aussi.

Introduction
  I. Critiques and Reforms
 II. Democracy and Constitutional Amendment
III. Consultative Elections and the Role of the Senate
 IV. Senate Abolition, and Senatorial Tenure and
     Qualifications
Conclusion

Introduction

In the Senate Reference, (1) the Supreme Court held that the government's proposed reforms to the Senate can only be achieved by following the constitutional amendment procedures in Part V of the Constitution Act, 1982. (2) There were six reference questions. The first concerned the legislative authority of Parliament to unilaterally impose senatorial term limits of various lengths. …

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