Senate Reform

The ongoing publicity around questionable Senate expense claims must be a source of great dismay to the many senators who have done no wrong.

Nevertheless, the recent events raise questions about how Senators are chosen, or whether they are needed at all.

The Senate has been the subject of numerous questionable comments and proposals:

  1. The Prime Minister has been clear that he would favour an elected Senate. The suggestion that he has been hypocritical in appointing Senators in the meantime is nonsense. Had he not made appointments, we would now have a half empty chamber with a Liberal majority.
  2. The Reform party and others argued for a Senate with equal representation from each province, which would mean that PEI, with 1% of the population of Ontario, would have an equal number of Senators.
  3. Justin Trudeau, in remarks to La Presse said, “We have 24 Senators from Quebec and there are just six from Alberta and six from British Columbia. That’s to our advantage.” The combined population of Alberta and British Columbia is greater than Quebec’s and is growing more quickly. Apparently Mr. Trudeau’s idea of “we” does not include them.
  4. At one time, the provinces argued that they should appoint Senators (this was the early model in The United States). Then the Premiers noticed that this would leave them out as the provincial voices in national dialogues, and rapidly backtracked.
  5. Likewise, those who have campaigned for an elected Senate have not thought through the consequences. Rather than being a body whose suggestions could be politely ignored, an elected Senate would argue for equal status with the House of Commons. This format has contributed to the decision-making paralysis in the United States as well as in Italy and Japan.
  6. Prime Minister Harper has championed the idea of single eight year terms. This might make sense for an elected body, but hardly for a body whose members are appointed by the Prime Minister. If that system existed when he was first elected in 2006 the entire Senate would be Conservative appointees by the time of the next election. This is hardly a setting for lively debate.

In theory, the Senate is to be a voice of the provinces, but it is hard to see evidence of that role being effectively fulfilled. Advocates for the Senate also argue that, in a less partisan atmosphere, it does useful work tidying up legislation that comes through the House of Commons. Perhaps so.

But it is instructive that all of the provinces that originally had an appointed upper house have abolished them, Quebec being the last to do so in 1968. None of them has expressed regret.

Abolishing one of the houses in a bicameral legislature is difficult because the house to be abolished has to agree. After many attempts, Nova Scotia succeeded in 1928. The Conservative government of the day had won a resounding majority in 1925, in part on this issue, and was able to pack the upper house with abolition supporters.

It is even harder to abolish the federal Senate. The necessary constitutional amendment can be passed only if identical resolutions are adopted by the House of Commons, the Senate, and a two-thirds majority of the provincial legislative assemblies representing at least 50% of the national population.

Perhaps there is another way. The Supreme Court has confirmed that if a referendum on separation of a province (i.e. Quebec) voted yes, then Canada and Quebec would be obliged to negotiate terms.

If a matter as important as the breakup of the country can be initiated by referendum, then should it not be possible to use the same means to achieve change in the Senate?

Perhaps when voting at the next federal election, voters could also be asked whether they want the current Senate to become an elected body. If there is a resounding yes, it would create considerable pressure for the parties to agree on a plan.

But that is not the first question that voters should consider. Rather, they should be asked whether the Senate should exist. Its members acknowledge that its primary tool is the ability to slow things down. Is there evidence that that this is helpful, or that Canadians value the role? Are the 308 (soon to be 338) Members of Parliament too few to do all of the necessary legislative work?

Speaker of the Senate Noel Kinsella has recognized the need for the Senate to justify its existence and has urged his colleagues to do so over the summer.

The question Canadians should address now is whether they want a second chamber at all. If so, the debate can then begin as to how its members should be selected.


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