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Senate Reform in Canada

What's Wrong With the Senate in Canada and Will it be Fixed?

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Updated: 05/30/13

How the Canadian Senate Works Now

The Senate of Canada is the unelected upper house of the Parliament of Canada. The Canadian Senate consists of 105 senators, about a third of the number of members of parliament in the lower chamber or House of Commons. There are four major components to the role of Canadian Senators. The Senate provides "sober, second thought" to the work of the House of Commons by examining and sometimes amending legislation originating in the lower chamber. Senate committees provide in-depth studies on national issues. The Senate represents regional, provincial and minority issues. The Senate also may serve as a watchdog on government.

What's Wrong With the Senate?

The biggest complaint about the Senate is that, because it is unelected, it is undemocratic. Many Senate appointments are party supporters and cohorts of the prime minister of the day. If a prime minister is in power for several terms, the Senate can become increasingly one-sided politically.

Some object to the length of time Senators can hold their jobs. Senators can now serve until they are 75. That in itself is a reform. Up until 1965 Senators could sit for life.

Many object to the cost of the Senate. Although the cost to operate the Senate is only about a fifth that of the House of Commons, Senators do quite well. Salaries of Canadian Senators begin at a base of $135,200. In 2012 the Senate only sat for 88 days. As The Star's Bob Hepburn has pointed out "to retain the Senate – elected or unelected – as a high-paid debating society or research institution is ridiculous."

Options for Reforming the Senate

Questions about the role and form of the Senate have been recurring periodically since Confederation.

The concept of a Triple-E Senate became popular in the West during negotiations leading up to the repatriation of the Constitution in 1982. It was also an influence during the Meech Lake Accord negotiations in 1987 and became part of the Charlottetown Accord in 1992. The three E's stand for:

  • Equal number of Senators in each province
  • Effective powers (Senate veto on constitutional amendments, some appointments and some exceptional Crown powers)
  • Elected Senators (using a single transferable vote system in each province)

After the many years of Constitutional wrangling, many Canadians and politicians have been quite hesitant about taking on Senate reform projects that would require constitutional amendments.

The two options for reform of the Senate that have been on the table, but not moving very fast, are fixing term limits for Senators and provincial elections of nominees to be appointed to the Senate. Both of these options are in a single bill, the Senate Reform Act, tabled by Tim Uppal, the Conservative Minister of State (Democratic Reform) in June 2011.

Senate Reform Act

The Senate Reform Act was introduced shortly after the Conservative government won a majority in the 2011 federal election.

Text of the Senate Reform Act (as introduced at first reading)

The proposed bill would fix Senate terms for those appointed after October 2008 at a single nine-year term (which wouldn't begin until after the bill gets Royal Assent).

The bill would also put in place a voluntary framework for provinces to use to select nominees for the Senate. The Prime Minister would be required to consider the names of Senate nominees when making recommendations on appointments to the Senate.

Alberta has already held four elections for Senate nominees since 1989.Three Senators have been appointed from those nominees who were elected.

Although different provinces have varying reactions to the legislation, it doesn't seem a priority for any. It will also likely face legal fights along the way, as Quebec, for one, has said it will challenge the constitutionality of the act all the way to the Supreme Court.

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