What to do with the Appointed Upper Chamber?

Posted by Molly Rockett on October 16, 2015
By DJ Livermore

Wikimedia Commons
The Canadian Senate is a unique institution within Canada. While every province has adopted unicameral legislature (similar to the legislative chamber for Nebraska), the Canadian Senate persists as the upper chamber of the federal legislature. Even as the United Kingdom moves to democratize its House of Lords, the Canadian Senate remains appointive, with senators chosen by the Prime Minister. Around the world the Canadian Senate is seen as a bastion for political patronage.

The chamber, with its recent expenses scandal, is controversial. It is inherently undemocratic to have an unelected chamber of the federal government with the power to draft, approve, and reject bills (which the Senate does occasionally). There are better ways of representing Canadians and party leaders are considering the options available to both create a representative and accountable government. When it comes to the Canadian Senate, talk of reform is nothing new, while reform proves to be stubbornly difficult.

Modifying Tradition

Senate reform is particularly popular in Western Canada as shown by Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed’s task force in the 1970s that recommended an elected senate. Lougheed himself wanted a “House of Provinces” similar to the German Bundesrat, in which the provincial parliaments would choose senators. In the 1990s, the Reform Party called for the “Triple-E Senate”, which refers to a senate that would be “Equal, Elected, Effective.” Both the Meech Lake Accord (1987) and Charlottetown Accord (1992)--Accords which would have renegotiated the terms of federalism in an attempt to prevent Quebec from seceding and the balkanization of Canada--included provisions for a transition to an elected and reformed Senate. However, neither accord was adopted. 

Like its Reform Party predecessor, the Conservative Party is in favor of a “Triple-E Senate”. However, there are significant barriers on the path to reform. In 2014 the Supreme Court of Canada complicated the Conservative Party’s plans for reform when the Court ruled both abolishing and/or electing the Senate would require constitutional changes. This is a daunting task that requires substantial provincial support. The Court set different standards for abolishing and electing the Senate with abolishment requiring unanimous support amongst the provinces and elections requiring the consent of seven provinces that consist of half the population of Canada. This ruling pertains to other parties as well as the New Democratic Party and the Bloc Québécois are both in favor of abolishing the Senate. The Liberal Party leader Justin Trudeau has proposed that all appointed senators sit as independents in an “open, transparent, non-partisan process.” The Green Party is in favor of electing senators using proportional representation which would ensure fair representation for an elected Senate, something the House of Commons is sorely lacking. In addition to disagreement over the manner in which senators are chosen, there is also philosophical disagreements over whether the allocation of seats should be equal by province or region, or by population the provinces.

Un-appointing the Senate

The debate about the Canadian Senate will continue after the election, as it has for over sixty years. The debate within Canada about a founding pillar of its government is admirable. It is difficult to see what the future holds for the Canadian Senate with the rocky waters of a federal election and constitutional hurdles approaching, but change is coming and Canada could soon be rid of its antiquated relic.
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