In a recent comment to the earlier thread on Canada’s dysfunctional electoral system, Wilf Day notes that Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised that reforms to the Senate will be in place before the next general election. Included in Harper’s plans is a move to an elected Senate.
In many comparative politics texts, Canada is listed among the countries with a weak upper house, but as Wilf notes, technically the Senate is almost as powerful as the lower house. The Senate has not frequently challenged the authority of the lower house and the government that emenates from it, in part because it is an unelected body. I would add that simply being appointed is not enough to render an upper house weak, as the British House of Lords is actually far more influential than is often assumed in many of those same standard comparative politics texts. However, the Lords have a special function in that many have been appointed for their special expertise in various policies, which gives them a basis for assertion of authority that Canada’s essentially patronage appointments do not afford.* (The hereditary members have been sharply reduced in their voting priveleges in recent years.)
Then there is the partisan factor. Canada’s lower house, and hence its executive, has been controlled by the Liberal party for about three quarters of the past forty-plus years. Hence most Canadian senators have been both appointed by Liberal prime ministers and faced co-partisan governments through most of their tenure. And, I do recall that the Conservative governments of the 1980s indeed had some difficulties getting budgets and other bills through an upper house dominated by the other party.** In the U.K., on the other hand, alternation of the lower house and government has been more regular, though that has not prevented a built-in conservative bias to the House of Lords (stemming from the till-recently dominant life peers). Many of the British upper-house members, however, sit on the “cross benches,” and the body may simply be less partisan than the Canadian Senate. (There may be comparative studies of the two upper chambers, but I am not aware of them if there are.) And, of course, one bill that the British upper house clearly can not veto or delay is the budget, which must pass only the Commons.
If Canada moves to an elected upper house, it will become more like Australia, which also has a powerful upper house. In addition to strong powers, the Australian senate is fully “federalist” in the American sense, in that it has an equal number of members per state, regardless of population. In this sense, the two houses of Australia’s parliament are highly incongruent in their composition. The incongruence is made even greater by the different electoral systems: Both are single transferable vote, but in single-seat districts in the lower house (i.e. the “alternative vote,” “instant runoff,” or “majority preferential” system, as you will), while the upper house is multi-seat STV and hence a proportional system. The PR-STV system for the upper house in Australia exacerbates the incongruence by making it more likely that the lower house majority (and hence the government) will lack a majority in the senate; on the other hand, the use of PR reduces the potential partisan bias of the chamber’s malapportionment in that it effectively ensures that the chamber’s majority will be represented across the states, and not concentrated in some over-represented states where one party is stronger than in the nation as a whole. (Contrast, for example, the Republican bias of the US Senate: that party has had occasional seat majorities over the past quarter century without ever having that majority rest on even a plurality of the vote.)
Strong bicameral parliamentarism is actually rather rare. That is, most parliamentary systems are either: (1) unicameral or, if bicameral, have an upper house that is either (2) easily overridden by the lower house, or (3) highly congruent due to similar districting arrangements and electoral systems. Presidential systems, on the other hand, are far more likely to have incongruent and co-equal upper houses.
As far as I know, the only parliamentary system in which the government can be ousted by a no-confidence vote in either chamber, acting alone, is Italy. But in Italy, through all three major electoral systems of the postwar era (open list PR, mixed-member majoritarian, and the new majoritarian-bloc, closed list system), the upper house has always been highly congruent to the lower house, thanks to nearly identical electoral rules.*** However, while Italy may be the only parliamentary system with a formal bicameral-confidence requirement, in the parliamentary (especially British parliamentary) tradition, a cabinet must resign if it can’t obtain “supply,” meaning that the upper house can effectively force a government to step if it has budget power.
So, how common is it for governments in parliamentary systems to need the upper house for supply? The only cases I know of are Australia and Canada. Some other parliamentary federations–Austria and Belgium, for example–have very weak (as well as quite congruent) upper houses. And while Germany has an upper house with real powers (unelected, but arguably even more powerful as a federal chamber than it would be if it were elected, given that its members are direct delegates who must vote as a bloc on behalf of their state cabinet), the budget must clear only the lower house.
Upper houses in parliamentary systems usually can’t be dissolved before the expiry of their terms, as typically the lower houses can be. Australia and Italy are exceptions, and unsurprisingly so: If the upper house can either oust the government (as in Italy) or block its budget (as in Australia as well as Italy), it makes good constitutional sense for the dependence to be mutual, so that a deadlock can be referred back to the people in the form of a “double dissolution.”
Thus, while Wilf asks about the uniqueness of Australia’s incongruent and nearly co-equal but incongruent chambers with the double dissolution possibility, I would say that it is Canada that is the unique one: A parliamentary systems with a (formally) co-equal upper house that is not subject to dissolution. The inability to dissolve the senate has not been a serious problem because the appointment of senators by cabinets, mostly of one party for the past forty years, has tempered the incongruence of the chambers. But if the Canadian senate were elected, it would become at once more inconrguent and more assertive. Then Canada would become a very odd case of a federal parliamentary system with the very real possibility of genuine deadlock.
Will Harper’s reforms include the introduction of a provision for double dissolution? It seems unlikely, because he also recently announced an intention to institute fixed general election dates, thereby eliminating the possibility of early dissolution of the lower house. (Surprising, I might add, as he became prime minister on account of an early dissolution, and he seems to be itching for an early election on his own terms in search of a majority; presumably he wants the fixed dates to kick in after he wins a larger “mandate” from that dysfunctional electoral system!)
* Recent allegations in the U.K. of the selling of peerages to campaign contributors are all the more scandalous given that the rather limited “legitimacy” of the upper house depends on its being a chamber of chosen “experts” and the “wise old men” (and some women) of the hereditary peerage.
** The 1984-93 period in Canada marks the only time since 1962 that the Conservatives have had a majority in the lower house. In other instances, like Harper’s government, Conservatives have been a mere plurality. Because a minority government is generally less likely to clear any controversial partisan legislation through the lower house, it is less likely to have bills rejected in an upper house dominated by the other party: Bills that reach the senate will have been watered down already.
*** In fact, in 1992, Italy’s reform away from PR was instigated by a popular initiative that struck a few key words from the senate electoral law. (That is all an initiative in Italy can do: overturn or strike provisions from an existing law). The old Italian senate electoral system had single-seat districts in addition to PR, but only a candidate obtaining 65% of the votes could win a district seat. If a district had no such candidate (and hardly ever did any), then the seat would simply be added to the regional PR district. By striking the cluase referring to the 65% requirement, the senate electoral system was efectively transformed into a parallel MMM system because the single-seat districts now would be won by a plurality. This threw the chambers into a potential future of unmanageable incongruence (given that the cabinet must maintain the confidence of both houses), and forced the parties to work on a new and more majoritarian electoral system for both houses–just as the promoters of the initiative intended!