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Drunken Second Thought: Revamping the Senate

Senate reform is like that weird rash you get on the back of your hand that comes and goes.  It pops up, you itch it for a bit, learn to ignore it and finally it goes away for a while, until it comes back.

Senate reform is no different.  Back in 1874 an MP named David Mills proposed that the provincial legislatures should appoint their respective Senators. His plan was killed almost immediately, but since then there has been a litany of proposals meant to ameliorate the many faults of the chamber.  In 1978, Prime Minister Trudeau – father of Liberal leadership candidate Justin Trudeau – proposed replacing the Senate with a ‘House of the Federation’ which would have been appointed and would have possessed a suspensive veto.

Growing regionalism in Quebec and the West through the 1970’s and 1980’s led to calls for an elected, effective and equal Senate.  A version of this ‘Triple-E’ Senate was offered to Canadians in the Charlottetown Referendum of 1992 and summarily defeated.  Since then successive governments have attempted to put forward a number of modifications, none of which have been implemented.

On February 1st the Harper Government asked the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of the federal government establishing ‘consultative’ Senate elections and term limits for Senators.  Under the proposed legislation, called Bill C-7, the Prime Minister will still officially appoint Senators, but he would be required to consider provincial and territorial election results.  The legislation would also establish term limits for Senators.  At issue is whether the federal government can implement these proposals on its own, or if the approval, through referenda, of seven provinces with at least half of the population is required.  The constitution is obscure on this point.

Whether there is a referendum is a question of critical importance as the “7/50” requirement is practically impossible to fulfill because Quebec and the Atlantic provinces are almost certain to vote no.  These provinces are currently massively over-represented in the Senate and are not willing to give that up.  Additionally, Quebec will never endorse any constitutional amendment without massive concessions to the nationalist cause.  Thus, the only hope for real, necessary reform is through the federal government.

The Senate faces a two-fold problem.  It lacks a democratic mandate to assert its authority.  This hamstrings the chamber, and is amplified by the fact that Senators hold office until they turn 75.  Patrick Brazeau, the alleged wife-beater, is currently slated to serve until 2049, a 40 year term which would cost Canadian taxpayers $5.2 million.  His case also highlights the extreme difficulty of removing a Senator.

The Senate also faces criticism for its extreme regional imbalances.  British Columbia is allotted six Senators for its 4.4 million people while Prince Edward Island has four seats for 140,000.  This corresponds to one Senator for 733,000 in BC, while in PEI each Senator represents 35,000.  Supporters of the current Senate say that its purpose is to provide regions with a voice and thus it does not need to abide by the principle of representation by population.  Most advocates for reform, at least those who support a Triple-E Senate, are in favour of each province having an equal number of seats.  They argue that the current system is flawed as it awkwardly provides regions with equal numbers of seats, an arrangement that might have made sense when the provinces joined confederation, but is now a relic.  The Senate should either be equal between provinces or else fully representative by population.

Not that Bill C-7 will necessarily change any of this.  While the potential law is a good start there is a large possibility that it will never achieve any of its objectives. Essentially, while the federal government can ask provinces to hold Senatorial elections it does not have the authority to order the provinces to hold elections.  Provincial governments might refuse to call an election out of fear that provincially elected Senators, who would be the only province-wide elected politicians, could usurp their power, or they might simply refuse out of ideological differences with the federal government.

Another problem with the legislation is that it only requires a Prime Minister to “consider” a candidate elected by each province.  The Prime Minister could still legally appoint another individual, although the political costs for this would seem to be immeasurable. Finally, since it would not be a constitutional amendment a government could simply repeal the legislation and return to the status quo, although again this would entail massive political repercussions.

Senate reform must be implemented in the near future.  It is absurd to think of Canada, the birthplace of responsible government, as having a fundamentally undemocratic Upper House.  While it is not perfect, Bill C-7 is a step in the right direction.

– Matthew Cressatti


(Featured photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Intiaz Rahim, Creative Commons, Flickr)

About M. Satti

Matthew is a second year student at McGill University. He is studying history and political science, with an emphasis on European history after 1815 and Canadian politics and public policy. He can be contacted at matt.cressatti@bell.net or on Twitter at @cressatti13

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