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Acknowledge the elephant in the Red Chamber

by Stéphane Dion

throne-e1360611568265To have a useful discussion on Senate reform or improvement, we must face the elephant in our Red Chamber – the place where senators sit. I am amazed by the number of writings on the Senate, including Professor Tom Flanagan’s, that don’t even mention this pachydermic problem. Yet this is the fundamental reason why, almost 150 years after Confederation, our senators are still being appointed rather than elected.

This elephant is the huge imbalance in the number of senators per province. How can we not see this beast? While New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have ten senators each representing them, Alberta and British Columbia have but six each, even though their populations today are five to six times larger.

There is no obvious logic to this imbalance, contrary to the equal number of senators per state in the United States or Australia. The unfair distribution of senators among Canadian provinces is the somewhat incidental result of east-to-west migration and settlement of European immigrants since Confederation. This is why New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have so many more seats in the Senate relative to their population than Alberta and British Columbia.

As I noted in a previous Inroads issue, this unbalanced provincial representation in the Red Chamber is tolerated only because our senators – being unelected – exercise their constitutional powers with the utmost restraint.1 Although it has almost the same powers as the House of Commons, the Senate almost always leaves the last word to the lower house. The Senate proposes amendments – often useful – to bills from the House, but rarely casts a veto.

However, if senators were elected, they would no longer have any reason to leave the last word to their colleagues in the House. Instead of vetoing one bill every few years, they might well do it every few weeks. The risk of parliamentary paralysis is quite obvious, particularly when electoral outcomes produce two houses of different partisan complexions.

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About the Author

Stéphane Dion
Stéphane Dion is the member of Parliament for Saint-Laurent–Cartierville and former Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.


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