On Real Senate Reform for Canada

The Senate of Canada was intended by the founders of the nation as a 'chamber of sober second thought.' In recent decades the upper house of Parliament and its members have been called everything from undemocratic to wasteful to shameful. Sober or significant would be hard adjectives to find in its description outside of a high school civics lesson. At best one might find an occasional defence of the institution in media on either purely historic grounds or by illumination of its several committee studies published each year. Although in practice Senate committees and their work, albeit perhaps important and well intentioned, are given less second thought than afterthought. So the institution continues unchanged as a legacy of the politics particular to the origin of the Dominion in 1867. The respectability of Senate and Senator have faded. Members today known more for lifetime patronage appointments with not insignificant compensation and famously absurd attendance records than any honorable title. In the same period the contemporary utility of traditional Westminster institutions in general has come under greater scrutiny.
The two-party domination of politics at Confederation has evolved into a multiparty polity in recent years. This was demonstrated explicitly this year as a traditional third party formed the Loyal Opposition in the House of Commons for the first time. Regionalism has become pervasive in federal governance; ranging from Quebecois nationalism to Western alienation to power play by individual Provinces railing against federal authority. The continued growth of population and economic power in the West has been at the centre of calls for reform of the upper house. Residents of the west coast and prairies view their ever-increasing import within the federation as being inconsistent with a House of Commons rigged quite literally in favor of their eastern counterparts. That the composition of the Commons is slanted falsely to benefit the east is an undisputed fact. Both Quebec and Prince Edward Island under the Constitution hold a disproportionate number of seats in a House pro porting to base membership on representation by population. The rise of lobbying for single issue or constituency interests will likely continue to increase with sophistication of method and recent discontinuation of electoral public financing. Calls and movements to carry greater inclusion of groups deemed historically or culturally disenfranchised or under-represented in the political sphere fuel agitation for change as well. When combined with ever-increasing partisan fervor and ideological dichotomy amongst elected officials the varied dissatisfaction with Parliamentary conventions shows no sign of waning.
Proposals for reform are myriad and rooted often in stakeholder interests. Third party proponents and oft related groups have rallied hard for some form of proportional representation. This would be a fundamental change in governance. A shift at its most basic from the trend of single party majority government to multiparty governing coalitions. The intended affect being an undoing of a two-party dominant system in favor of a plurality of parties representing a diversity of social interests. It seems doubtful however that the most significant champion of proportionality, the New Democrats, will retain their passion for this cause under current conditions. With its ascension to Official Opposition status and clear potential path to forming a government under the traditional model it seems unlikely that they will continue to lobby for electoral reform with their past excluded zeal. Changing the rules is a far more attractive prospect for a small player who would reap benefit than for a big player who would now find change a detriment to their own electoral prospects. One can hardly dispute idealism falling prey to pragmatism in politics. It does appear likely however that the cries for proportional representation will continue forward, even among elements of the newly empowered opposition.
In the case of the Senate there are two primary lobbies with competing models of reform. Both rooted at their base in differing political motivations. The first is the side which favors an outright abolition of the upper house. The second countering with a proposed greater role for the red chamber. At its most articulated extent the latter is expressed as the Triple E model. The three E's being Elected, Equal and Effective.
The abolitionists contend that every province and territory follows a unicameral, or single legislative house, model while functioning as well or better than their federal cousin. They see no need for costly and wasteful sobriety in reviewing bills already debated and passed by legitimate elected representatives in the lower house. Their case is certainly strong. Where calls for elimination of the Senate have been consistent and increasing not a single province has ever had a movement of any significance lobbying for a bicameral, or two house, legislature. The respective unicameral assemblies of the second tier of government across the land have functioned well since Confederation. Exceptions being the result of poor policy, lackluster leadership, partisanship or corruption rather than any lack of second thought. The Senate itself, as detractors point out, has no real legal authority to overrule the Commons; Nor should it as its members are unelected and unreasonably unaccountable. Add to this utter lack of democratic principle or practice an inconsistent methodology for appointing Senators. The membership can grow or recede at the whim of the Prime Minister. Regional representation is based very, very loosely on relative population. Some Senators are appointed as a reward for public service, others for their civic contributions and still more for partisan political reasons but all to a ripe old age. With such random selection criteria, plum benefits and a transparent void of accountability the ancient Roman choice of a favorite horse of the Emperor as Senator, though patently absurd on its face, seems somehow less so to Canadians. The annual expense of maintaining a stable of thoroughbred patronage far too high the abolitionist would argue.
The reformers in the second camp have a different take. Whether single, double or triple E proponents of senatorial change they do agree on a need for renewal over outright abolition. Their primary arguments are the acknowledgment of those on the abolitionist side of the debate. Reformists concede everything outlined above but attach their own corollary. They see beyond the Senate as it is to a Senate as it could be. In this view the much maligned upper house becomes an opportunity to enhance democracy and federalism. The roots of this perspective as stated earlier lie in Western alienation. From the populist, prairie-born schism of the Progressive Conservative Party, which led full circle in a generation from Reform to Canadian Alliance to a new Conservative Party, the ideal of the Triple E model has been transposed. In practice however little serious effort has been made on the matter beyond platform rhetoric and largely symbolic Senate elections.
At the heart of calls for reform versus abolition is the very Western alienation from which the notion was born. It is not in the interest of highly populated and vote rich Ontario to share an equal legislative voice with lesser populated provincial partners. The idea is certainly contrary to the constitutionally over-represented interests of Quebec. Here lies the great irony. Without eastern support resolution of western under-representation perceived to be perpetrated by eastern interests is a non starter. The very inspiration for reform is ultimately its fatal bane.
So a nation sits at the intersection of divergent partisan and social interests for and against proportional representation. Down the street from the crossroads of an acknowledged dysfunctional Senate poised between eastern abolition and western reform. It is here that a third way emerges. A route forward which finds compromise between the convergence of disparate paths. A single stone which strikes at the two birds of proportional equity and Triple E reformation. It is in this fourth E for Equity that we may find new life for an ailing yet fundamental institution of our Parliamentary democracy.
What would a Quadruple E Senate look like?

-The upper house would be composed of 80 Senators and a Speaker
-There would be 20 Senators from each of four regions: West (the four Western provinces), Ontario, Quebec, and East and North (the four Maritime provinces combined with the three northern territories)
-The Speaker would be appointed by the Government in the House of Commons and would cast a vote only in the case of a tie between Senators

Elected and Equitable
-The election of Senators would be based on regional proportional representation from results of the general election for the House of Commons; No separate ballot or election process would be required
-Parties would submit lists of Senate candidates for each region
-The popular vote for each region would determine Senate seats by party with each seat representing 5% of the popular vote (rounded) for a total of 20 seats or 100% of electors; So a result of 12% of the popular vote for the Green Party in the combined Western Region of British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba for instance would net the Greens two Senators for the duration of the current Parliament
-Senate votes would be based on a simple 41 member majority with the exception of defined constitutional matters and special regional vetoes as described below
-The Senate would be dissolved and elected in entirety along with the House of Commons based on an election originating in the Commons from normal convention or confidence measures

-The Senate would have joint jurisdiction with the Commons over approval, amendment or defeat of bills through normal Parliamentary legislative procedure
-The Senate would have no jurisdiction over money bills or confidence motions; Only a defeat in the Commons could trigger an election for a new Parliament
-All bills would originate in the Commons; Senators and committees would review, amend, debate, defeat or approve Commons bills only
-Each regional caucus would be given special veto power over three specified legislative areas each. These would be deemed Vital Regional Interests:
-East and North- Energy and Natural Resources, Environment, Fisheries and Oceans
-Quebec- Human Resources Development, Official Languages and Heritage, Citizenship and Immigration
-Ontario- Industry, International Trade, Citizenship and Immigration
-West- Energy and Natural Resources, Agriculture, Environment
A veto would follow a vote by the full Senate resolved to be detrimental to a Vital Regional Interest and would require a two-thirds majority of 14 Senators from the affected region to approve into force.

By marrying the diverse interests of proponents of Senate reform and proportional representation the plan presents a new bridge to ford an old impasse. Partisan, social and regional interests could be transcended to create real momentum for needed change. The coupling of special protections over defined Vital Regional Interests only solidifies the motivation for compromise. The fourth E represents the possibility of finding common ground for a plethora of hitherto competing partisan, regional and social interests sufficient to realize the elusive goal of real Senate reform for Canada.