PCP For: Should Countries with an Appointed Senate Abolish it in Favour of an Entirely Elected Government?

Ratan Varghese - 1B Electrical
Posted on: July 2, 2016

Unelected “upper houses”, such as the Canadian Senate, are archaic and undemocratic institutions that should be abolished. A Senate whose members are appointed by the Prime Minister or Governor General makes the legislative process more costly and less nimble, strengthens long-established parties at the expense of newer parties and independent politicians, and worst of all is a self-reinforcing impediment to the will of voters.

According to their own figures, the Canadian Senate cost $81 million to operate during the 2014-2015 financial year. That is $81 million of taxpayer money that wasn’t spent on improving infrastructure, helping the poor, or investing in renewable energy. One would hope that $81 million was being spent wisely, but unfortunately it is not so.

That money was spent on an institution whose very purpose is to slow the pace of legislation. In Canada, a bill must be approved by both the House of Commons and the Senate before it can become law, doubling the time the legislative branch spends mulling over important issues. This may have not been a problem in the days of horse-drawn buggies, but in today’s fast-paced world every second of decision-making counts. Additionally, the long tenure of senators leads to longer-term stagnation in government. The minimum age of a Canadian senator is 30 years, and they can stay in power until they are 75 – assuming they don’t die, resign, achieve comically low levels of attendance, become a foreign citizen, become bankrupt, commit a crime, leave their home province, or sell property in their home province until their remaining property has below $4000 worth. If any of those are in dispute, it is the Senate that decides whether its own seats are vacant.

One position where the Senate stagnation is evident is the Leader of the Opposition. The Opposition in the Canadian Senate is “formed by the non-Government party with which the most senators are affiliated”, which right away means robs independent politicians and newer, smaller parties of a chance to shape policy. The Leader of the Opposition of the elected House of Commons, meanwhile, can be from any party opposing Government. Scanning a list of House opposition leaders from 1957 to 2015, one sees an eclectic mix of party backgrounds: ranging from the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance to the Bloc Quebecois and the New Democratic Party. Over the same time period, every Senate opposition leader has been a Liberal or a Progressive Conservative. Even the Senate’s official website admits that “the Opposition in the Senate and the Official Opposition in the House of Commons can be different parties.” In an era of constant change, the Senate is a static, inflexible think tank, full to the brim with old blood. In another self-reinforcing twist, guess how many Senate seats end up with parties trying to abolish the Senate?

The limited ability of smaller parties to influence Senate proceedings is a subset of perhaps the largest issue with an unelected Senate: it is fundamentally undemocratic. These appointed senators are almost as powerful as the elected representatives chosen by voters, but have nobody to hold them accountable. They can nullify the will of the people by disapproving of bills passed by the House: it is part of their job and often the course of action most fitting their incentives. These senators are not appointed for their ability to represent the will of the Canadian people, but for their ability to represent the will of the governor or prime minister who appoints them. That is both undemocratic and redundant, considering that after a bill is passed by the House and the Senate it must be approved by the governor general anyway. Having an unelected Senate may help some suppressed minorities gain more influence in governance, but other minorities are actively shut out. In a rule reminiscent of Ancient Greece, these philosopher kings are required to own or have equity in at least $4000 of property in the province from which they were appointed. Coupled with the minimum age restriction of 30 years, it is almost guaranteed that the Senate will fail to represent students, the homeless, and low-income households without significant restructuring.

The Canadian Senate is an old institution, imitating the still-older British House of Lords. It has a long and storied history, but conditions have changed since the 19th century. Money is harder to come by, with the global economy so fragile. The world is changing faster and legislation should keep pace. New and interesting political parties come and go, but are being systematically silenced and shut out of governance. Most of all, in an era of smart, fickle knowledge workers the last thing we need is a branch of government where the main qualification is the willingness to oppose the public for one’s entire lifespan.

Most of Canada’s international peers do not have an appointed Senate. While the United Kingdom retains its House of Lords, the upper chambers of Australia, Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland and the United States of America are all composed of senators elected by the people. Those organizations probably aren’t as essential as they claim to be, seeing as Croatia, Denmark, Estonia, Hungary, Iceland, New Zealand and Sweden all abolished their senate-equivalents. Even within Canada, provincial level upper houses have been abolished for hundreds of years in Ontario, Newfoundland, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Quebec. A single house parliament can definitely function efficiently, so it’s about time Canada and the UK made the jump to simpler, more democratic governance.