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Would a Triple 'E' Senate Afford Better Government?


Notes for a presentation to the Civitas National Conference, Toronto


Michael Lusztig

 Author Notes

Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, U.S.A. Lusztig received his Ph.D. from McGill University in 1994, and taught at the University of Western Ontario before moving to SMU. He has published articles exploring comparative constitutional politics as well as international trade.

 Essay - 4/4/1999

The catalyst for the emergence of the Triple 'E' Senate (1) idea in Canada was the perceived weakness of institutions of intrastate federalism in the protection of Western Canadian interests following the National Energy Program (2) (NEP) fiasco. The NEP, in fact, stimulated a 3-pronged Western constitutional agenda that included a) seeking increased devolution of constitutional powers to the provinces; b) articulation of the principle that all provinces are constitutional equals; and c) creation of a Triple 'E' (3E) Senate to increase Western representation at the federal level.

My point is that while the 3E proposal is symbolically appealing, it has substantive shortcomings:

1) it would be unlikely to satisfy Western demands for more effective representation in Ottawa;

2) it diverts negotiating resources away from more substantively important Western constitutional objectives; and

3) it would undermine another key objective of Western conservatives - significant reduction of public spending at the federal level.

Substantive Shortcomings

The Triple E Senate was designed to perform two functions - serve as a critical check on the power of the House of Commons (and therefore the government), and to provide better provincial representation at the national level of government. While useful in the first objective, it is less so in the second. In fact, the elected component - which would make the Senate effective by making it more legitimate - would undermine its provincial representation role.

Australia has used the 3E. Predictably, the Australian Senate has not been an effective chamber for regional representation. It has operated in a partisan fashion. In Canada, with its vast territory and sparse population, it is reasonable to assume that senators elected in province-wide constituencies would be even more reliant on - and hence answerable to - the party organizations that would be necessary for helping to fund election campaigns.

Overlooking Better Alternatives

The fact that a 3E Senate is unlikely to work as advertised is only one problem associated with it. Indeed, Western Canada's insistence upon it presents a potentially large opportunity cost. There is no doubt that the West has been, and still is, vulnerable to manipulation of the political and constitutional process by the more populous center provinces.

Devolution of constitutional authority to the provinces, it strikes me, is a much more effective means of realizing the West's desire for political protection. I recognize that devolution is an imperfect substitute for stronger representation at the national level. On the other hand, there are two reasons why better representation in Ottawa is less important to the West now than it was in the past.

First, traditional sources of Western grievance against the center - in the realm of economic and transport policy - are less worrisome with the institutionalization of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA not only limits the federal government's ability to interfere with the Western economies, it also makes transport issues less important. If North-South trade begins to replace East-West trade, Western Canadians are less concerned about freight rates, for example.

A second change has been Ottawa's practice of consulting the provinces on major public policy changes. In other words, issues that previously had been considered largely at the national level, and now dealt with in interstate negotiations. The recent Social Union conference is an excellent case in point.

One advantage that could accrue to the West of dedicating more effort to constitutional devolution is that it has a natural ally in Quebec. While Quebec has resisted the Western demand for a 3E Senate, it is possible to imagine a powerful Quebec-Western coalition that seeks to devolve more constitutional authority to the provinces.

Fiscal Costs

My final problem with the 3E Senate is that it could prove antithetical to most Westerners' preference for more fiscal discipline - less taxing and spending - in Ottawa.

The logic is rather simple. An effective Senate increases the size of the minimum winning coalition necessary to pass legislation. Thus, rather than the government merely needing a majority in the House of Commons, a second majority (in the Senate) would be necessary. It is an axiom of coalition theory that the larger the minimum winning coalition, the greater the resources necessary to buy off opposition within the coalition.

The logic is the same as with minority governments. Minority governments tend to be fiscally costly because the government, cognizant of the need to maintain minority party support, must buy the support of minority party members. There is little reason to think that an elected Senate would operate differently. In other words, it is difficult to imagine that a government could be both fiscally responsible and successful in passing a good deal of legislation through an elected Senate.

Thus, while it is conceivable that Senators could extract a price of greater fiscal responsibility in exchange for support of a piece of legislation, the fact that most of Canada's political parties are well to the left of center suggests that this scenario is unlikely. Ironically, then, a 3E Senate may well serve to institutionalize even less fiscal responsibility in Ottawa - something that most conservative Westerners would surely oppose.


(1) Critics of Canada's current Senate, which is made up of for-life appointees of the prime minister, believe that it should be replaced with a body that is elected, with equal representation from each province, and that is a more effective participant in the legislative process - a Triple 'E' senate.

(2) In 1981, the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau introduced the National Energy Program, new law which imposed a federal interest in the income and control of Alberta’s energy resources. The law outraged Western Canadians, not only by trampling on long-standing provincial rights to resources, but by illustrating to many the growing distance between the federal government in Ottawa and the national aspirations of Westerners.

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