What if Canada’s Senate was elected like Australia’s?

One of the easiest things about moving to Canada was understanding the federal political system, because it’s so similar to Australia’s.

Federal government of six states and two territories = federal government of 10 provinces and three territories.

Lower house with 151 members = lower house with 338 members.

Elected Senate to represent the states = unelected Senate to represent the regions – wait, what?

Whenever I tell Australian friends that Canada’s Senate is not an elected body, they’re amazed. Yet, despite attempts at reform, that’s how it has been since the upper house of the federal parliament was created in 1867.

How Canada’s senators are chosen

The 105 senators are appointed by Canada’s governor-general on the advice of the prime minister, and represent different regions of the country.

There are 24 senators each for Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes (10 each for New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, four for Prince Edward Island), and Western Canada (six each for British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba), six for Newfoundland and Labrador, and one each for Northwest Territories, Yukon and Nunavut.

The Senate of Canada’s temporary chamber in Ottawa. Photo: Stephen Jeffery

Because the house is meant the represent the interests of the regions, rather than the share of the population, the system benefits the less populous areas of the country. British Columbia’s 4.8 million people have six senators, while the combined 1.8 million inhabitants of the Maritime provinces share 24 senators.

Senators can remain in office until they reach the age of 75, though they must be at least 30 to be appointed.

How Australia’s senators are chosen

(If you already know this/don’t care, jump straight to the next step by clicking here)

Australia’s six states are allocated 12 senators each, while the Northern Territory and Australian Capital Territory receive two each. Intended as a states’ house, this, too, leads to population discrepancies: New South Wales’ 7 million inhabitants have the same representation as Tasmania’s 500,000.

Typically, half the senators from each state, plus all territory senators, are elected at each federal election, giving the states’ senators an approximate six-year term. They are voted in under a single-transferable vote, proportional representation system, which is deeply confusing, but which I’ll try to explain (or you could go to the official website, which also includes a practice sheet).

  • Candidates on a ballot sheet are listed in groups (usually composed of other members of the political party they represent).
  • Electors must fill in boxes either above the line (that is, for the entire group), or below the line (for individual candidates), numbering their preferences. If voting above the line, electors must choose at least six boxes to fill in, marking their preference in descending order (so 1 for first choice, 2 for second choice, etc). If voting below the line, they must choose at least 12 boxes to fill in, using the same process.
  • Each candidate must receive a quota of the total votes to be elected to the Senate. The Australian Electoral Commission website explains the quota is worked out using the following formula: “(Number of formal ballot papers / (Number of senators to be elected + 1)) rounded down + 1 = Senate quota”.
  • If a group receives enough ‘1’ votes above the line to reach a quota, the first candidate on their list is elected. If a candidate receives enough below the line ‘1’ votes, they are automatically elected. Their votes are then transferred at a reduced rate to the number ‘2’ candidates on ballots.
  • If there are still seats left to fill, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated from the count, and their votes are distributed to those marked as a second preference on the ballots. This continues until all required seats are filled.

Confusing as hell, right? Well, this system means the party that forms government through a majority in the House of Representatives very rarely controls the Senate, relying on the minor parties and independents on the crossbench to pass their legislation. The major parties will usually win four to five seats from each state between them, leaving a couple to be taken by parties like the Greens or One Nation after preferences have been counted.

After the most recent Australian election, the governing Coalition of the Liberal and National parties won 76 of the 151 seats in the lower house, but only 35 of the 76 seats in the upper house.

In this way, the government cannot ram through legislation without at least some consultation, but the system can lead to situations in which, through preference deals and above-the-line voting, a candidate can become a senator with just 77 first preference votes.

What if Canada adopted this system?

I should start off by saying that I am not arguing for or against an elected Senate, nor for an adoption of the Australian system if such a change was made. There are many other types of elected upper houses around the world Canada could look to, especially in fellow federations like Germany. But this is the system I know the most about, and I thought it would a fun little thought experiment.

I’ve created the following hypothetical Senates using:

  • The total votes for each party, in every province and territory, for the House of Commons
  • Applying the Australian Senate’s quota formula to those votes, and allocating the appropriate seats down to the nearest whole number
  • Since there is no preferential voting system in Canada, the leftover seats are marked as “unknown”, since there is no way of knowing how voters’ choices would flow.

Of, course, this relies on a massive assumptions that voters would choose the exact same party as their first choice in both the lower and upper houses. But, again, this is purely hypothetical and wouldn’t necessarily be the result.

So here is the first chart, showing what the Senate could look like today if it had been elected under a standard Australian system (that is, half the seats in the provinces and all of the territory seats chosen at the 2015 election, and the other half of the provincial seats chosen in 2011):

Results of a 2015 half-Senate election, by numbers.
The party share of each province in a half-Senate election in 2015.

As you can see, no party has a majority, and the governing Liberal party has fewer seats than the largest opposition party, the Conservatives. The Liberals’ historically poor result in 2011, in which it came third and received its lowest ever share of seats, is reflected here as half the provincial seats are from that election.

Sixteen Senate seats are unclaimed, and would have to be determined via preferences. But even if a single party were to subsequently win all of them, they still would not have enough seats to claim a majority.

But what if 2015 had been a double dissolution election, in which all Senate seats were up for grabs? This would require different quotas, and the result might look something like this:

Results of a 2015 double dissolution Senate election, by numbers.
The party share of each province in a double dissolution Senate election in 2015.

The Liberals are undoubtedly the biggest beneficiaries of a double dissolution, but despite their majority government win in the House of Commons, they have still failed to achieve complete command of the Senate. There are 15 unknown seats that could tip the balance but, again, it would be unlikely with a crowded field of minor parties and preferences.

And what if Canada went Full Australia?

Let’s say Canada one day decided that not only was the Australian voting method the best, but that they would take the seat allocation as well. Change the Senate wholesale. Twelve seats for each province, two for each territory.

Aside from requiring 21 more politicians in the world (which would undoubtedly go down well), the results of a half-Senate election might look like this:

Results of a 2015 half-Senate election with Australian-style seats, by numbers.
The party share of each province in a half-Senate, Australian-style election in 2015.

The big winners out of this appear to be the Conservatives, with more proportional numbers for their Western Canada heartland, and the Liberals, with similar results in the Maritimes, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Meanwhile, a double dissolution could look like this:

Results of a 2015 double dissolution Senate election with Australian-style seats, by numbers.
The party share of each province in a double dissolution, Australian-style Senate election in 2015.

Suddenly, there’s a new kid on the block, as the quota in British Columbia is low enough to admit one Green Party candidate to the Senate. In both the regular and double dissolution elections for this Canadian-Australian Frankenstein Senate, no parties are able to command a majority.

As debate over Senate and wider voting reform rages in Canada, it will be interesting to the direction the country takes. Will it look to Australia? Another country? Will it develop its own unique system, or will the Senate remain appointed for the forseeable future?

If you enjoyed this, you might like my article applying Canada’s first-past-the-post system to Australia’s last federal election.

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