While Prime Minister Stephen Harper has struggled to govern in the face of an opposition majority in the House of Commons for almost five years, he's recently been enjoying a majority in the unelected Senate. But if senators were elected and limited to eight-year terms, as the Conservative Party claims to prefer, the Red Chamber could be just as tumultuous as its democratic counterpart.
A projection of what form an elected Senate could take suggests the Tories would instead preside over a shaky minority of 43 senators in the 105-seat body. The Liberals would make up the bulk of the opposition, with 41 members, with the Bloc Québécois electing 14 and the New Democrats four. The major parties would also be joined by two independents and one Progressive Conservative - Lowell Murray, who was appointed in 1979 by prime minister Joe Clark but has since refused to join the Conservative caucus.
This analysis is based on several assumptions drawn to create a plausible alternative history of the Red Chamber. The hypothetical starting point was July 1, 1995, the date by which the failed Meech Lake accord stipulated Senate reform had to be enacted. It was then assumed new Senate rules would be grandfathered-in, with already sitting senators allowed to remain in the chamber and retire, resign, or pass away as they did historically.
Hypothetical vacancies were filled by new senators who were elected to eight-year terms in conjunction with the federal elections that have taken place since 1997. These senators were elected according to the proportion of the vote each federal party received in each province where vacancies existed, with an extra advantage given to the party with the most votes.
The New Democrats and Bloc Québécois, who both want the Senate abolished completely, were included in the exercise on the assumption that they would decide to participate in Senate elections because of the new-found democratic nature of the Red Chamber. Abolition of the Senate is, according to an Angus-Reid poll released last week, not a popular desire in Canada: Only 30 per cent of respondents support abolition, compared to 69 per cent who support the idea of an elected Senate and 63 per cent who support the adoption of eight-year terms.
At the beginning of the exercise, the Liberals held a slim majority of 52 senators. The opposition included 47 Progressive Conservatives and three independents. In the 1997 election, when the Liberals were elected to a tight majority in the House of Commons, the new senatorial elections would have resulted in a Liberal minority: 50 senators against 47 Progressive Conservatives, three independents, two Reform Party senators and two senators from the Bloc Québécois.
In 2000, the Liberal majority elected in the Commons would be echoed in the Red Chamber, with 56 Liberal senators, 32 Progressive Conservatives, eight senators from the Canadian Alliance, five from the Bloc Québécois, and three independents.
The Progressive Conservative caucus, whittled away by retirements and resignations but without the national popular support to replace these losses, would be mostly swallowed up by their party's merger with the Canadian Alliance. In the 2004 election, Paul Martin would increase his majority in the Senate despite being elected to a minority government in the House of Commons. The Senate would seat 57 Liberals, 37 Conservatives, eight Bloc Québécois senators, two independents, and the aforementioned Mr. Murray of the Progressive Conservatives.
The 2006 election, in which Stephen Harper's Conservatives won a minority, would re-affirm the Liberal majority in the Senate. This is in part due to the unbalanced distribution of seats to each province in the Red Chamber. While British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba - the base of Conservative support in the country - combine for only 24 seats, the four Atlantic provinces have a total of 30. They would help ensure that the 2006 election would result in 57 senators from the Liberal Party, 35 from the Conservatives, and 10 from the Bloc Québécois, in addition to the two unelected independents and Mr. Murray.
Not even the 2008 election would hand the Conservatives a minority in the Senate, as it would result in 44 Liberals, 40 Conservatives, 13 Bloc senators, and four New Democrats.
Only with the departures of several Liberal senators since then would the Conservatives take hold of the Senate, though it would require another election for that to occur - the vacancies that would presently exist have been filled according to current levels of support. Nevertheless, of the 43 Conservatives and 41 Liberals that would be sitting in the hypothetical Senate today, 26 of them would be unelected holdovers that were appointed prior to 1995.
Reforming the Senate is a task of Herculean proportions. Any attempts by the federal government to unilaterally change the manner in which senators are chosen would likely be blocked by Ontario and Quebec, along with several other provinces. Bringing them onside would require the kind of constitutional wrangling that almost broke the country apart in the early 1990s.
But however reform is accomplished, the Senate will likely mirror the deadlock - and fractious democracy - of the existing House of Commons.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com
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