This is the third and final entry in a series comparing the US and Canadian systems of government.
I believe that Canada benefits from having an unelected Senate. That’s because without being elected, the senate have little legitimacy – and its only role can therefore be to act as an emergency brake on the Cabinet and lower house. Canada gets two things from this: (1) a check on the almost absolute power inherient in the system of parliamentary soveriegnty and responsible government and (2) no need to get most legislation through both houses.
This works for Canada because conventions are respected as Constitutional law – even if not written down. Since the entire Executive function is established through convention, so can the limited (in practice, if not in theory) role of the Senate be. By having the Senate’s role unclear, limited and not legitimate (without a direct vote of the people) it can barely function in ordinary times. But if times were ever to get extraordinary, then the Senate would become quite relevant and useful. This is especially that case given that the only situation in which the Senate could perform its role would be when it was to enhance – not take from – the people’s power. That’s because any other move would surely result in the end of the Senate – or in it moving towards direct elections.
The nature of the Senate – in terms of both how Senators are selected and in the length of terms (for how long, to age 75) – makes for a very conservative body. In this sense, conservative merely refers to an inclination to not change things. That’s because the Senators have a vested interested in keeping their amazing jobs intact (near life employment for a ceremonial job). Since the Senate will be comprised of Senators appointed by past governments – it also contributes to a sense of continuity. Finally, the role of patronage serves some useful functions – and provide one outlet for patronage that can result in little practical harm.
If the government finally ever got around to reforming the Senate (instead of just putting if off for ever), and if the Senate were reformed – I think that Canada would be a little less well governed. If the powers of the Senate were increased (an expected result if the Senators are elected), then the Canadian system would be more like the less-accountable US system of two equal houses and three equal branches. That said, if the Senate were to be elected – I would not in the streets (of America, mind you) protesting (nor would I be up at night worrying about the state of Canadian governance).