The Senate Changes Are Not Perfect—But They’re An Improvement

Prime Minister Trudeau’s ideas for Senate appointments have the potential to represent useful progress. Many critics seem to prefer perpetually postponed perfection.

The proposal is that a panel made up of three federal members and two ad hoc members from the provinces will recommend appointments to the Prime Minister. The candidates will need to have a record of achievement and public service, show integrity, be non-partisan, and understand the role of the Senate.

Of course, this has the potential to work poorly if the panelists show a distinctly partisan bias, or the Prime Minister ignores their recommendations and make his own choices.  Either of these outcomes would represent a wasted opportunity, but would not be worse than the status quo.

At present, the Senate membership consists of 45 Conservatives, 29 Liberals, nine Independents, and 22 vacancies. Political affiliation has been the prime determinant in past appointments. Some senators are conscientious and competent; others are neither. Several have embarrassed themselves and the institution by dubious expense claims and other misdeeds.

The Senate reviews legislation passed by the House of Commons, and proposes amendments, which are often adopted. The Senate will defer to the House if a difference cannot be resolved, but this is by convention rather than being a constitutional requirement.

The large number of vacancies is scheduled to grow. There will be 29 retirements—15 of them Liberal—during the government’s four year mandate. Trudeau‘s opportunity to make 51 appointments—almost half the chamber—could bring considerable change to the makeup of an institution that needs it.

So, what is the reaction?

The NDP and the Conservatives complain that the Senate will still be undemocratic, as they argue for elected senators or abolition. But they know that neither can happen without constitutional amendments needing provincial support—unlikely for the first and a no-hoper for the second.

Nor have they addressed concerns that an elected Senate, operating with the same electoral legitimacy as the House of Commons, may result in American-style legislative gridlock.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation calls it “nothing more than the proverbial lipstick on the pig.” They want a referendum on abolition, which is quite likely to produce a ‘yes’ vote. There is no reason to believe that the Supreme Court would recognize that as a valid method for constitutional amendment.

British Columbia Premier Christy Clark says she will not participate by providing provincial members to the appointment panel. She is entirely right in her complaints about the distribution of Senate seats. BC, with more than twice the population of the Maritime provinces, gets six seats. Meanwhile, the Maritimes get 24.

But staying out of the process will not solve that problem. A redistribution of seats also requires a constitutional amendment that is unlikely to get the necessary support.

The Globe and Mail sniffs that Trudeau “could appoint highly qualified people without a cumbersome, decorative process, if he wanted to.” 

More consequentially, it worries that appointing worthy non-partisan senators risks “creating an overreaching monster that challenges the will of our elected representatives” by no longer observing the convention that the Senate defers to the House if there is an impasse. Of course, the existing Senate (currently a Conservative majority) could do the same thing.

The Globe complains that this change—because it is easy to make—could be easily reversed. That is not a bad thing, as the proposal may have unanticipated problems.

Each of these critics is implicitly endorsing the thoroughly loathed status quo. If their idea for change is not to be adopted, they prefer no change at all. The Globe provides the tepid defense that not all of the partisan appointments are bad.

Clark’s position may be good political posturing, but it will not advance BC’s interests. Those favouring abolition, to which all of the provinces must agree, know that the chances are negligible.

If well executed, Trudeau’s idea represents real change in an institution that needs it. If execution is poor, it may add impetus to efforts that require constitutional amendment. Either way, it is a worthwhile experiment.


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