Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Democratic Reform

My guess is that the most significant democratic reform we will see under this Conservative majority is a change in the seat allocation formula for the House. Perhaps the government will prove me wrong by moving forward on Senate reform or other issues, but I doubt it. Beyond the fact that it is now in the Conservatives' interest to keep the Senate as is and to stick with first-past-the-post, there's also the fact that reformers don't agree on what the final product should look like. As often in these situations, the status quo prevails.

Take Senate reform, for example. You'd have to decide on at least the following issues:

1. The form of the Senate:
a) Appointed
b) Elected
c) Abolished

2. If you answered a or b to Q1, the seat allocation principle:
a) None (PM appoints from anywhere, or pure nationwide proportional voting)
b) By province
c) By region, as is
d) By region, some other way

3. If you answered b to Q1, the voting method:
a) Nationwide proportional
b) Proportional by province/region/large constituency
c) First past the post
d) Something else

And of course, your answer on these might depend on what we do with the voting system for the House. I'm pretty sure that no single combination of answers to just these three questions would be picked by a majority of Canadians, and my guess is that none would come even close.

My question to you: if you could change the way in which we choose are MPs and Senators to your liking, what would you do? (My preferred solution involves abolishing the Senate and moving to a sort of MMP system, modified to make majorities easier to achieve.)


Carl said...

You forgot the one senate reform which probably will be implemented - namely term limits. In all likelihood the federal parliament can amend the constitution to impose term limits on Senators without the approval of the provinces, provided that the terms are sufficiently long to provide senators with a degree of security of tenure (and I believe there was a supreme court reference to that effect in the late 1970s - I think its probably still good law, but might have to be reconsidered in light of the amendmends to the constitution in 1982).

Whether that's desirable or not, is a different question. The Senate does contain a number of idle time-servers and party bagman. On the other hand it also contains some very diligent senators who, by virtue of their lengthy experience are much better legislators than their peers in the commons (and you see that both in the quality of senate committee work and in the practice of the senate of fixing often serious mistakes in legislation that gets pushed through the commons.

As for other changes, well, you can't change senator allocations or abolish the senate without the approval of the provinces, and I don't see the 6 provinces who are (or will be) over-represented in the Senate being keen on changing that (to say nothing of the fact that no one is keen opening up the constitution to all the other petty wants and demands of the provinces).

And without a change in senate allocations, the under-represented provinces (who make up the bulk of the government MPs) aren't going to be all that keen on giving the senate the legitimacy that goes with being elected (although I do think the Tories will continue the practice of appointing elected senators on an ad hoc basis - so query whether some provinces catch on and start electing senators on their own - at some point, even without constitutional reform, you could create constitutional convention of appointing elected senators as they become available that future PMs ignore at their peril).

Election Watcher said...

Thanks Carl, these are very good points. Yes, I did forget to mention term limits. As you say, it's unclear whether it's good or bad, and I'm not even sure it'll make a big difference.

Are you sure you can't change the senator allocation without approval of the provinces? After all, you can change the MP allocation. There are certainly subtleties I'm not grasping since I'm not a constitutional scholar, but those parts of the Constitution appear pretty parallel to my untrained eyes.

Carl said...

I think the distinction is that the senate was intended to provide regional representation in parliament whereas the house of commons was not. The 1980 SCC reference (Re: Authority of Parliament in relation to the Upper House, [1980] S.C.R. 54, if you're interested) concluded that parliament couldn't make changes that would affect "the fundamental features, or essential characteristics, given to the Senate as a means of ensuring regional and provincial representation in the federal legislative process” without the approval of the provinces. So senate allocations and constitutionally mandated elected senators would be problematic (although, a convention of only appointing elected senators, or appointing elected senators in priority to others would not not).

It's been a while since I had looked at it, so my recollection of Senate reference was a bit off. The SCC didn't say that you could impose term limits (it declined to comment on the basis that it wasn't given a specific fact pattern). Reading between the lines, it seems to suggest that some limitation on tenure is acceptable (observing the current 75 year mandatory retirement age - originally senators were appointed for life), but cautioned that "at some point, a reduction of the term of office might impair the functioning of the Senate in providing what Sir John A. Macdonald described as “the sober second thought in legislation”". I think the Tories are pushing for a 8-year term, which strikes me as being at the low-end of the spectrum (although arguably defensible in an era when the house faces 4-year fixed elections dates), but I could see a 12-year term limit surviving consitutional scrutiny.

In any event, there is something a bit ridiculous about having, in 2011, Senators appointed by Joe Clark (1) or Pierre Trudeau (5) still getting a say in how Canada is run 25+ years after those respective prime ministers last graced 24 sussex drive (even though, I have to admit, some of those appointees are diligent and capable senators - Colin Kenny and Lowell Murray come to mind). And lest I be accused of being partisan, I'm not sure it's a great idea for Patrick Brazeau - appointed by Harper in 2009 - to still be a Senator in 2049, when he turns 75, no matter how capable Mr. Brazeau is.

Election Watcher said...

Very interesting! Thanks so much for all this information. To me, the sentence you quote seems to preclude changing the seat allocation (or, indeed, abolition), but not the election of Senators.

I wonder if it'd be constitutional to have a nationwide proportional ballot determining the party makeup of the Senate. But then there'd be a formula telling parties how to spread their seats across provinces so that the number of senators from each province is the same as today...

Anonymous said...

How can we trust your "guess'? Your seat projections sucked ass! Work on your "science" and in the meantime "Democracy" will find it's own level thank you very much! Democratic reform lol? What does that even mean? Read about some other countries in the world. Canada is doing quite fine in the Democracy department...

Election Watcher said...

Democratic Reform = it's the official terminology of the government, as in "Minister of State for Democratic Reform". Thank you for demonstrating your ignorance.

My projection was based on polls, which were inaccurate. As I explained in those posts, they were better than the vast majority of other projections out there.

Anonymous said...

"Ignorance"? Is that "code" for you are way better and smarter then the rest of us "ignorant" Canadians that vote for the best government "possible'??? Well then sir...glad to call myself "ignorant"..no offense meant...

Election Watcher said...

Ignorance = a Conservative supporter laughing at the terminology "Democratic Reform" because he/she doesn't know that it's the official terminology of the Conservative government.

Anonymous said...

*sigh* You must forgive us "ignorant" Conservative's...we are too busy earning a living and then sending our cash to you "enlightened" non-conservative's..so you can teach us big word's and teach us the "error of our ways"..


Btw..will follow yer next predictions of whatever next important election that comes up..guessing the next Ontario provincial election...is that not the next"Important" election to the future of Canada *barf*? I will follow it closely...so that in the end... I can laugh and point at you and go "Na-na..you were wrong again Mr. Poly Wise Guy lol!!!

Election Watcher said...

I'm not the one teaching you big words. The Harper government created the position of Minister of State for Democratic Reform. So complain to them if you don't like that phrase.

I can assure you that when I return to Canada, I will pay much more taxes than the benefits I receive. And, um, I actually support the reduction of corporate tax rates and expansion of TFSAs.

I don't plan on covering the Ontario election in detail because I'll be too busy with my job, and have no attachment to Ontario. The next election I will follow closely will probably be the BC or Québec election. And you are most welcome to come back - but again, keep in mind that if the pollsters feed us biased polls, I can't do anything about it.

Wilf Day said...

Electing Senators requires a constitutional amendment supported by seven provinces with a majority of the population because of s. 42(1)(b) of the Constitution Act: ". . . the method of selecting Senators." Same for changing the allocation of Senators among provinces: s. 42(1)(c).

By contrast, the MMP system recommended by the Law Commission of Canada in 2004 requires no constitutional amendment.

Since it had only 33% "top-up" MPs, in order to make every three local ridings become two larger ridings, it may meet your preference for a moderate model. But it would still have let the 16.5% of Quebec voters who voted Conservative elect 12 MPs rather than five, enabling Stephen Harper to give Quebec proper representation in the cabinet. (Assuming of course, that the Liberals had chosen to keep him in office in either a Conservative-Liberal coalition or some lesser form of alliance.)