Senates in a proportional world

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    Robert Jarman

    Let us assume a world where the Commons, provincial and territorial legislatures, and municipalities, all use a proportional electoral system to elect their members.

    Canada still has a senate, and provinces, some of them, did used to have second chambers, just like most Australian states and American states still do today. How might these bodies be chosen?

    Many do not like the power of a prime minister to basically put who they want on the Senate provided that you are 30 years old, a citizen and have 4000 dollars (sorry nuns). But they cannot quite agree on what to replace it with.

    The NDP wants to abolish it, the Liberals right now have a somewhat independent commission, but it will be impossible to know the effects once their appointer is out of office and their common denominator is gone. The Conservatives have some mixed ideas, Harper sometimes appointing the nominated senators nominated in Albertan elections, but at other times appointing more of those tied to him.

    There are just so many options, like term length, whether the whole senate is elected at once, if provinces and territories still matter, who does the electing, what mathematical models are used, can they be recalled and if so by whom, what powers this senate would have.

    Germany uses a degressively proportional system, giving 3 votes to all states, 4 votes to states with more than two million, 5 votes to those with more than 6 million, and 6 votes to those with more than 7 million, and each states governing coalition sends a delegation of itself and can revoke it at any time, and replaces their delegation at the state general election or whenever a motion of no confidence succeeds.

    The Netherlands has each provincial legislature and their Caribbean territories participate in an indirectly elected senate for a 4 year fixed term, elected two months after the provincial elections. Each member of the provincial legislature has one vote, reweighted by a number equal to the population of the province divided by the number of members on the provincial legislature in question, and they vote in a nationwide party list system, presumably an open list, of 75 members, and as far as I know, this is a secret ballot.

    Ireland has 6 senators elected using single transferable vote by the graduates and students at two of their largest universities (which could be expanded to include all such members of post secondary institutions), three each, along with 43 senators elected by municipal councils along with the new Dail and the outgoing senators using single transferable vote, divided into panels of which between 5 and 7 members from each panel will be elected, and the candidates to each panel are nominated by different types of groups reflecting Irish civil society and professions, and the prime minister, or Taoiseach, appoints 11 senators. They all serve a 5 year term, non staggered.

    Australia has 12 senators per state, 6 elected every three years subject to the rare double dissolution, in a direct election from the entire general population, using single transferable vote. However due to the influence of the above the line voting system, it is largely a closed list proportional system and very few bother to vote for those below the line.

    In France, their senate is elected in halves for a 6 year term, with the municipal councillors, mayors and deputy mayors, department and regional councillors, members of the directly elected national assembly, collectively Les Grandes Electors, all having a vote, voting by department. Departments with one or two senators use a two round system, those with more senators than that use a proportional system but I do not know which one.

    What kind of Senate might you want to see in Canada, in a proportional world? And should provinces adopt them under any rules?

    Robert Jarman

    And yes, I did memorize all the information which I had posted in the original comment.


    I really like the Netherlands system but I would change it to be an STV vote rather than an MMP open list vote. I like how it retains the provincial representation in the Senate which is the his orical background of the Canadian Senate. I also like how it changes members over province by province so that the body of the Senate is not changing completely every four years like the House of Commons. A system like this would allow it to keep its composure as a body of sober second thought.

    Also, brilliant memorization there!

    Robert Jarman

    The Netherlands uses pure party list, not MMP. It actually has no elections where the jurisdiction is divided into constituencies, although the national parliament, the directly elected part, is regionally divided into twenty regions for the purposes of the party list being formed and to whom the seats are allocated.

    STV on a scale like that would get pretty tricky. You just try having a Senate half the size of the directly elected parliament, reweighting the votes of the provincial and territorial legislatures the way I saw, and trying to manage STV. Most STV jurisdictions limit it to 10, like Ireland municipal elections, or fewer.

    It being indirect, I guess parties would probably try to give their members an instruction sheet but even still, the ballot would be enormous with literally hundreds of candidates on it.

    Also, you misread me about the terms. The entire Dutch Senate is elected at once for a 4 year term, it just happens two months after provincial elections which are usually a year or two after a national election. If you are thinking about each province holding elections independently, like how Canada does it (all twelve Dutch provinces hold their elections on the same day), forming a coalition, and replacing their delegation to the senate accordingly, that is the German model, not the Dutch one.

    Robert Jarman

    An option though would be to give each province a number of senators proportional to population. We could probably stretch STV to fit 12 at a maximum district magnitude, so if the maximum size in a province is 12, then it should be slightly more than one senator per million, as the largest constituency, Ontario, has about 14.5 million. The exact ratio would be one senator per 1.2 million people. Assuming that each province and territory is entitled to one at the minimum, possibly giving the territories collectively a single senator, a slight favouring of smaller provinces, then Ontario gets 12, Quebec gets 7, BC gets 4 or 5, Alberta gets 3 or 4, and the rest get one. The total senate would probably be 37 senators or so. That is pretty small though, and so another option is to have each province get triple this number of senators but elect them in thirds every two years, or double this number and elect them in halves every 3 years, or some similar combination of fractions and term lengths. Incidentally, BC gets 5, Alberta gets 4, and what I said about the territories being combined is true, and they are using 6 year terms elected in thirds, then we would have exactly the same number of senators: 105.

    Given that legislatures are relatively small, it may be a good idea to add in the municipal councils into the electoral system, reweighting their votes the same way the Dutch provinces are reweighted, and combined with the provincial legislators given the standard weight, and they each get a ballot with STV. It would also help to make elections at the local level more important, for municipalities to matter more to federal distribution of funds, and to also limit the partisanship of the senate given that most municipal councillors are independents, or lead to the rise of autonomous municipal parties like in some areas of BC, leading to more coherent policies during an election at a municipal level, or both depending on how strict the local parties are and who they are allied with. Note that the ballots should be secret to prevent intimidation.


    I think the senate should be replaced with a chamber with 80-90% of it’s members selected by sortition, with the remaining 10-20% being elected by the House of Commons via STV. That is, instead of having them appointed or popularly elected, most of them will be selected at random. This would make them more genuinely representative of the citizens than any electoral system can achieve. Sortition has some advantages over elections; it minimizes factionalism, and these people wouldn’t be subject to the same conflicts of interest as elected politicians (which come from the desire to be re-elected), making politics less “dirty”. They may also be more willing to further educate themselves and evolve their views on issues, given their lack of loyalty to any group of voters.

    But there is one big question; Who should qualify for allotment? Should senators be allotted from the general voting population, or only from the people who signed-up for the senator lottery? If they were selected from the general population, it would be more representative of Canada’s people, being a permanent citizens assembly. If they had people selected this way, their votes should be anonymous. If they were selected from the people who signed-up, they would be people who wanted to become politicians, and are comfortable with all the pressure and attention involved. Candidates of recent elections would be offered entry to the Senate lottery.

    It would be ironic that the Senate would contain the “commoners”, while the House of Commons would contain the political elite.

    I also think that not everyone should be replaced at the same time, so there aren’t too many new people at once. This is important when we’re using sortition.

    Robert Jarman

    The House of Commons is not named after the English derived commoners, it is derived from French. Something that you would notice if you knew that the French name for it is La Chambre Des Communes.

    English got Commons from the same root word.

    Senate also is derived from the Latin etymology for old, same as senile, implying wise.

    What qualifications would there still be? Would people have to be of a certain age? Retire at a certain age? Be a citizen for a certain amount of time? Not have a criminal record or a significant criminal record? Would there be a quota from each provinces and territory? Would they have a specific term? Would the Senate be replaced in staggered terms?

    Alan E. Dunne

    With Respect

    If it were my decision: it would be the same qualifications as for voting except that Councillors of State (the present Privy Council plus ex-Senators), would be ineligible. So no to the next four questions. There would be a quota of eight per province and another eight representing all the territories (with further complications). There would be a fixed term of eight years for each Senator. One eighth (one from each province or c.) would be replaced each year.

    Alan E. Dunne

    With Respect

    One advantage of a Senate chosen by lottery is that it would be a checkup on how our methods of selecting candidates and electing them to the House of Commons were working. Which House was performing better (though I would give them few overlapping powers) could show if our electoral process was at least doing better than picking people randomly.

    Yours Sincerely

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