In the past week, the Senate of Canada — the upper house of the Canadian parliament, the chamber where politicians appointed by the Governor-General on the advice of the Prime Minister lend their sober second thoughts to legislation put forward by the House of Commons — has been getting quite a lot of bad press. Two senators appointed by Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper have been singled out for apparently abusing the Senate’s housing allowance, claiming that since they live somewhere far from Ottawa they need a special subsidy: Mike Duffy, of Prince Edward Island, hasn’t been seen by his claimed neighbours, while Patrick Brazeau of Québec faces criminal charges of domestic violence and sexual assault on top of housing expense fraud and any number of other tawdry claims ranging from non-payment of child support to stupid fights on Twitter.
In the above picture I took last summer of Parliament Hill’s Centre Block, the east wing housing the Senate is located on the right side of the picture. The House of Commons, the elected lower house, is on the left. Unpopular as the House’s MPs (Members of Parliament) may be, at least they have the legitimacy that comes from being elected. The Senate is a non-elected body, an upper house on the model of Britain’s House of Lords that was charged from the beginning with counterbalancing excesses of popular democracy with a regionally-balanced representation of people who are supposed to be seasoned politicians. To wit, after Wikipedia:
Under the constitution, each province or territory is entitled to a specific number of Senate seats. The constitution divides Canada into four areas, each with an equal number of senators: 24 for Ontario, 24 for Quebec, 24 for the Maritime provinces (10 each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, and four for Prince Edward Island), and 24 for the western provinces (six each for Manitoba, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta). Newfoundland and Labrador, which became a province in 1949, is not assigned to any division, and is represented by six senators, while the three territories (the Northwest Territories, the Yukon, and Nunavut) are allocated one senator each.
Senators remain in office indefinitely, until they retire of their own free will or until they are unable to exercise their duties. They are appointed by the Governor-General, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, who — whether Liberal or Conservative — has taken care to stock the Senate with politicians of their party. The social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP), now the official opposition, has no Senators at all. This, as John Ivison noted in the right-of-center National Post, may be a significant problem for the NDP if as seems likely it may end up winning an election and forming a government.
The Senate has no legitimacy. Might it be reformed? No. The Conservative Party has promised, not least because of its roots in western Canada where a Triple-E Senate has been very popular. A senate that was Equal (each province having the same number of senators), Elected (being elected by each province’s electorate), and Effective (the body having greater control over what legislation was passed) is what Harper et al would like. A writer in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald has pointed out that reform has been very slow to come, even with the Conservatives’ majority government.
Just last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced he will refer proposed legislation for Senate reform to the Supreme Court of Canada. Introduced in 2011, the legislation has been moving at a snail’s pace through the House of Commons, with the government and opposition parties blaming each other for the delays.
Harper’s request to the Supreme Court could take as long as two years, meaning any meaningful changes would be unlikely to be implemented before the next federal election.
The Conservatives have proposed limiting Senate appointments to nine-year terms and has encouraged provinces and territories to hold elections to fill vacant Senate seats. A handful of existing senators have been elected for Senate vacancies in their home provinces, then subsequently appointed by the federal government.
[. . .]
It’s six years since Harper pledged Senate reform. Implementing change in a timely manner has proven more challenging than the prime minister may have hoped.
In actual fact, anything more than slow change is impossible, since central and eastern Canada largely opposes this, as Atlantic Canada and Québec see their shares of the Canadian population drop (and Ontario sees its share stagnates) while western Canada grows. To engage in constitutional reform in Canada, one needs to get the support of seven provincial governments together holding a majority of the Canadian population. (Good luck with with getting the provincial governments of Québec, the four Atlantic Canadian provinces, and even Ontario to agree with a measure that would weaken their position nationally.) Anyway, how democratic could the Senate be when there are almost a hundred times as many people living in the most populous Canadian province (Ontario, my province of current residence) as in the least (Prince Edward Island, my province of birth)? As this article in Ottawa’s Hill Times points out, it’s only in Alberta that a majority of Canadians want the Senate to be an elected body anyway.
Alas, the official NDP policy of abolishing the Senate is unlikely; as Ivison and I note above, how to cross the threshold is another question entirely. I agree with the opinion of Kelly McParland from the National Post, but again, getting the necessary majority to abolish the Senate is going to be impossible.
[C]ommon sense suggests it’s better to just close the place than try to turn it into some deeper-thinking wing of Parliament. Liberals, for decades, used the Senate as a rest home for hacks, money-raisers, loyalists, out-of-work MPs and the occasional feel-good appointee. Brian Mulroney took a similar approach, while Stephen Harper started his first mandate by ignoring it, and more recently has tried to stuff it with appointees pledged to support his troubled plans to reform it.
The impracticality of reform was demonstrated by Harper’s reported plan to block an improved Senate from overruling the House of Commons. There are many reasons that reforming the Senate is a bad idea, but the danger that it could become a rival for power is one of the most compelling. Two houses battling for position could only add to Ottawa’s dysfunctionality. But why reform something that is only going to remain powerless?
In an ideal world, prime ministers would indeed put great thought and effort into establishing a highly skilled, intellectually impressive, thoughtful and engaged Senate. But it’s not an ideal world. The NDP supports abolition, so if Thomas Mulcair were to become prime minister — which seems the most likely alternative once Canadians grow tired of the Tories — he’d most likely treat the institution with the same contempt displayed by the Tories. A Liberal revival, should it happen, would most likely see an effort to offset the Tory majority with an equal number of third-string Liberals.
The Senate of Canada is the appendix of the Canadian variant on the Westminister model of parliamentary democracy. Unlike the human appendix, alas, the Senate can’t be removed.