Updates from Canada: don’t call it constitutional reform

andrew-cookIn October 2015 a Liberal government took office in Canada with commitments to both electoral and second chamber reform. In this post Andrew Cook provides an update. He reports that so far Senate reform has made the greater progress: following the introduction of a new appointments process, a plurality of Senators are now independents. Although a special parliamentary committee has considered options for electoral reform it remains unclear whether the government will be able to make good on its pledge that future federal elections will be conducted under a system other than first-past-the-post.

The government of Justin Trudeau came to power in October 2015 with a wide-ranging platform that included several propositions touching on the operations of the Canadian constitution. As was outlined on this blog at the time, the proposals range from introducing a dedicated Prime Minister’s Question Period in parliament, to reforms of the electoral process that would increase the autonomy of the Chief Electoral Officer and create an independent commission to organise leaders’ debates during election campaigns. The two most significant, and politically challenging, reforms proposed by the Liberal government were a focus of its agenda in 2016. Both electoral reform and reform of Canada’s second chamber, the Senate, have advanced since October 2015 but in different ways. It is worth reviewing the current state of reform in light of the recent developments on both these files.

Senate reform

Reform of Canada’s appointed Senate has long been discussed, and re-emerged as a key issue in the last federal election as a result of a Senate expenses scandal that eventually led to the resignation of then Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff.

Harper’s own relatively modest proposals for reform were previously deemed fundamental to the country’s constitutional framework, and therefore requiring substantial provincial consent, so he abandoned them and simply stopped appointing Senators.

The recent return to constitutional debate, which dominated almost two decades of Canadian political life, has not brought with it a renewed interest in reforming the written constitution. Justin Trudeau has repeatedly stated that he does not want to re-open the constitution, which he rightly fears ‘would require protracted constitutional discussions with the provinces.’ Hence rather than considering large-scale Senate reform, such as introduction of elections, Trudeau has created an Independent Advisory Board on Senate Appointments – an attempt to move towards a non-partisan and merit based appointment process. The board selects five candidates for each Senate vacancy, with the Prime Minister making the final decision on who is appointed.

Because there were so many vacancies left by Harper (22 out of the total 105 Senate seats), new appointments by Trudeau resulted in a plurality of Senators being independents by November 2016. They will work together on matters of Senate rules and logistics but will otherwise vote independently. This new reality will have major impacts on both the operation, and role, of the Senate.

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Canadians to debate electoral reform, again – but at this stage success seems unlikely

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Canada’s Liberal government, elected in October 2015, came to office with a commitment to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system. A parliamentary committee has now been established to consider the options for reform and report by December. Louis Massicotte offers an overview of the long, and largely unsuccessful, history of attempts to reform the Canadian electoral system and discusses the prospects for the current debate. He concludes that at this stage success seems unlikely.

In October 2015, Canadians elected a new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who quickly reached international celebrity status and has been enjoying a prolonged honeymoon with the public since then. A few months earlier, when his party languished in third place in opinion polls, Trudeau had boldly promised that the 2015 election would be the last one conducted under first-past-the-Post (FPTP), and that a parliamentary committee would consider two options: ‘ranked ballots’, known as the alternative voting (AV) in Britain, where it was rejected at a referendum in 2011; and MMP (mixed-member proportional system), a German-created mixed system that inspired the systems used for electing the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the London Assembly. On May 10, the terms of reference of the committee were disclosed. The committee is expected to consult widely and to report by December 1. The prospects for success will be discussed below, but it is fitting that we start by summarising the history of electoral system reform in Canada.

Earlier attempts at electoral system reform

In theory, a federal country with ten powerful provinces, including mostly French-speaking Quebec, is the kind of setting that offers plenty of opportunities for electoral innovation. Yet, the predominance of single-member plurality throughout the country is now absolute, and has rarely been challenged successfully in the past. The break-up of the two-party system following World War I, at a time when most of continental Europe was switching to proportional representation, led some Canadians to advocate either AV or the single transferable vote (STV). In 1920, STV was adopted for electing Manitoba’s provincial MLAs from Winnipeg, and this move was completed a few years later by introducing AV for electing rural members. In 1924, Alberta emulated this move by having provincial MLAs from Calgary and Edmonton elected by STV, and rural MLAs by AV. Both provinces kept these mixed systems until the mid 1950s, when they returned to first-past-the-post normalcy. An attempt to adopt the same hybrid failed in Ontario a few weeks before the 1923 election.

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Interesting times for the Canadian Senate

Following the election of a Liberal government last October reform of the all-appointed Senate has been high on the Canadian political agenda. Campbell Sharman offers an overview of past debates about Senate reform and an update on developments since October. He argues that under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plans the new government, much like the UK Conservative government in the House of Lords, will have to practice the art of persuasion to get their legislative programme through.

After more than nine years of Conservative government under Stephen Harper, the newly elected Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has a comfortable majority in the Canadian House of Commons. However, the Liberals do not have a majority in the appointed Senate, the upper house. This has been a familiar problem facing Canadian governments that have won office after a substantial period in opposition, since – unlike with appointments to the House of Lords in the UK – there is no expectation that Prime Ministers will appoint to the Senate from across the political spectrum, while independent appointments have to date been rare. Prime Minister Cameron may feel challenged by a House of Lords in which he does not enjoy a partisan majority, but the Conservatives are nonetheless the largest party; Prime Minister Trudeau faces a Senate where Conservatives outnumber Liberals by almost two to one.

Since 1867, senators have been chosen to represent the regional components of the federation, currently 105 members from the ten provinces and three territories.  Although the formula for regional appointments is specified in the Constitution, the selection of senators has been solely at the discretion of the Prime Minister. Senate appointments have no term and end only at age 75; the combination of personal selection by the Prime Minister and an unlimited term has encouraged patronage appointments based on party service and political connections. Almost invariably the Prime Minister appoints only from his own party. This has led to periods of one party dominance in the Senate as the partisan selections of previous prime ministers live on to cause problems for their successors.

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