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Five ways to save the Senate of Canada

Save the Canadian Senate

Is the Senate of Canada broken? And if so, is it worth saving? Here are the positions held by Canada’s federal political parties:

1) Abolish the Senate
The New Democratic Party of Canada, the official opposition since 2011, are staunchly in favour of entirely abolishing the Senate of Canada. “Unelected party hacks have no place writing or rewriting the laws of this country. It’s as simple as that,” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters in August 2013. Saskatchewan’s conservative premier Brad Wall is also in favour of abolishing the Senate.

It is unclear how the NDP would actually implement the abolition of the Senate if the party ever formed government in Ottawa.

2) Elect the Senate
Elected, equal and effective was the Triple-E proposal supported by the now-defunct Reform Party of Canada.  Alberta is the only province to have ever held Senate nominee elections (in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012). Typically coinciding with provincial or municipal elections, the Senate elections are a sideshow that have received little attention from the media or the general public. The Senate nominee candidates have run as provincial party candidates. Five elected nominees have been appointed to the Senate by prime ministers since 1990.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper‘s Conservative Party of Canada proposed legislation that could shorten terms in office and move towards provincially elected senators in 2006. The legislation was stalled and  the Conservative have since asked the Supreme Court of Canada for its opinion on the Senate reform proposals.

3) Panel-appointed independent Senate
Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau announced this week that he had removed all 32 Liberal senators from the party’s national caucus. The justification for doing so was to make the Senate less partisan and to eliminate patronage. Mr. Trudeau suggested that a non-partisan panel select new appointees to the Senate.

4) Proportional representation Senate
The Green Party of Canada passed a motion at their 2010 convention which supports the election of senators through a system that ensures proportional representation. While the policy is not specific, it could be referring to the electoral system used to elected members to the Australian Senate.

5) The status-quo Senate
In practice, the Governor General makes appointments to the Senate at the recommendation of the Prime Minister. Senators must be citizens of Canada and at least thirty years of age to be eligible for appointment to the Senate. They must maintain residency in the provinces or territories for which they are appointed and can only serve until the age of seventy-five.

While prominent Canadians have been appointed to the Senate, they overshadowed by the long-list of party loyalists who have been rewarded with appointments by various Conservative and Liberal prime ministers. Mr. Harper has appointed 51 of the 96 current senators since the Conservatives formed government in 2006 (there are currently 9 vacancies in the Senate).

7 replies on “Five ways to save the Senate of Canada”

An additional suggestion – select the senate via sortition. Treat it like jury duty lasting for a year, provide good pay, but have people link up to the senate via electronic links at their town/city hall. I haven’t yet thought out the precise mechanism :-).

To add to Adam’s suggestion, my personal preference for reforming the Senate would be to have the provincial Premiers select the Senators for their province. This mechanism avoids the messiness to two elected bodies while welcoming a broader diversity of views into the Senate, since presumably not all provinces will be governed by Premiers of similar political allegiances at all times. I’m not sure it does much to limit patronage appointments, but that seems like a bug in any non-elected body. Limit nominees to one term of 8-10 years or so. Nobody will be beholden to the Prime Minister of the day who named them their job, Senators’ loyalties should align with their theoretical constitutional mandate to represent their province, and citizens roughly preserve the democratic accountability mechanism which exists today by being able to hold the Premier to account for his/her Senatorial choices (as opposed to the PM under the current system).

Senators should not be elected unless the geographic representation issue is also resolved; giving the currently lopsided Senate democratic legitimacy would be worse than the status quo.

But I don’t see why abolition, as per NDP policy, can’t be a relatively simple process. Introduce a Constitutional amendment bill in Parliament; if it passes, send it out to the provinces for ratification. Once seven provinces representing 50% of the population ratify it, presto-changeo, no more Senate. Pundits claim “there is no appetite for reopening the Constitution”. I disagree; there is no appetite for the kind of grand schemes we saw with Meech & Charlottetown, but I think single-issue amendments such as this could still fly.

Another strategy, which could work if the Senate balks at passing the bill that abolishes itself, might be for the House of Commons, which is the chamber of “supply” (i.e. money), to simply cut off the Senate’s funding. Unless Senators and their staff want to work for free, that would effectively abolish the so-called upper chamber with no need to amend the Constitution.

Scrap it. I haven’t heard any convincing argument for why we even need it. Appointed legislators (appointed in any way) go against democratic principles. Another elected chamber would be redundant and/or would make Parliament much more dysfunctional.

The Senate has a place in federal politics – there is a need to counterbalance the rep-by-pop found in the House of Commons. Senators. We have to be careful on the question of elections. If we went that route it would be best to fix election dates to the mid-point of the Commons elections – that way there is less chance that we get a double tsunami on election day.

The danger is voter fatigue – we’d essentially be constantly in election mode at the federal level – add to that provincial and municipal elections every three-to-four years and it could end up becoming tiresome to the public and reduce participation rates.

There’s also the danger that individuals will become tired of contributing to campaigns and the balance of funding will tip away from grassroots to a more corporate-heavy profile than we already have.

Appointing the Senate to fixed terms seems to be the best solution – the big question is the best means to identify potential candidates.

I agree with Derrick. The senate has an important place in geographically-dispersed constitutional monarchies where party loyalty and the confidence mechanism means that most Commons votes are whipped. Combine this with the centralized power of the PMO and Cabinet and you have government by a very small cadre of MPs/advisers who wield extraordinary power, without the requisite check on power in the Commons. The only reason this hasn’t raised the hackles of former Reform Party folks is because the current PM is one of them. There is lots of room for reform – abolishing caucus membership as Justin Trudeau did is a good first step, shorter term limits and non-partisan panels is another – but complete abolition (or a move to make them elected) is not the answer.

One possible idea is to auction the Senate seats to the highest bidders. Maybe the seats will sell for about $1 million dollars each, and the person is a senator for 4 years.

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