A beginner’s guide to the Senate

In advance of a Fall likely to be full of debate, Kieran Hanley introduces the basics (and problems) of Senate reform.

As soon as Parliament resumes for the Fall sitting, there is going to be a lot of talk about the state of Canada’s Senate. In fact, there is going to be an outright debate about its future: should it remain as-is, should it be reformed (and how), or should it be just be eliminated all together? But what the heck does the Senate do anyways? Who are these people? A reformed (or abolished) Senate chamber will have profound impacts on how our country is governed, and it is important for us all to take part in the conversation. But in order to decide how we feel Canada should move forward – and how Newfoundland and Labrador would be best served – we all need to know the basics of what the Senate actually does, what might be wrong with it, and what the options are moving forward. What follows is a beginner’s guide to the Senate.

The Senate Today

The Senate is a group of 105 individuals that debate, approve, and even sometimes create the laws of Canada. Though they are picked from different parts of the country, they differ from Members of Parliament (MPs) in that they are not elected; technically they are appointed by our Governor General, but in reality they are hand-picked by the Prime Minister. The Senate, or “upper chamber”, works on many of the same issues that our MPs do – any bill that becomes law first goes through the House of Commons, then the Senate, and then to the Governor General before it is official.

Each province is entitled to a designated number of Senators, but that number does not reflect populations of provinces, nor does it change; for example Ontario gets 24 Senators, New Brunswick 10, Alberta 6, and Newfoundland and Labrador 6. Those that are appointed as Senators remain in their position until the age of 75, or until they voluntarily retire. Senators are well compensated, with their base salary at just over $132,000, a salary which can change depending on different responsibilities undertaken.

Senators are charged with a number of responsibilities – including representing their province’s interests. Senators go through much the same routine as Members of Parliament do in the House of Commons; they review legislation and see it through its final stages before it becomes law, they sit on committees which help shape and formulate policies, and they are also typically very active with organizations or non-official committees which represent a cause they are personally invested in.

Because of the process in which ideas become bills, and bills become law, the Senate is often regarded as a chamber of “sober second thought”. Bills are usually introduced in the House of Commons by an MP where they are debated, voted on, sent to committees for review, and voted on again. If a bill survives a second vote it is then sent to the Senate for consideration. Here the Senate reviews the bills and votes on it themselves – and if successful then the bill is sent to our Governor General to be officially enacted. The Senate, with its typically older and more experienced demographic, is counted on to assess the bill from a different point of view before it is given the rubber stamp. Technically, the Senate has the power to reject legislation that the House sends to it, but traditionally in Canada that rarely happens. Though outright rejection of bills by the Senate is frowned upon, minor changes to bills suggested by the Senate are usually approved.

In modern times, though the Senate itself is seen as being imperfect, it and its members have not created any major roadblocks in the day-to-day effectiveness of our democracy. But there are weaknesses its role, weaknesses that are universally acknowledged by politicians and academics from any party or political philosophy.

Common Complaints about the Senate

The Senate has been a target of criticism from all angles for many years. What is surprising about these criticisms is that, although they come from individuals and groups with profoundly different ideologies and motives, they are quite consistent.

  • Senators are not elected representatives
    No elections take place to install a Senator and so they are not granted a mandate by the public to serve them; they are appointed by the Prime Minister who can virtually pick at will. Yet these appointed individuals have a substantial impact on the direction and development of Canada, merely because one man thought them to be adequate.

  • Senators are Senators for far too long.
    Once appointed, a Senator will remain in his or her position until the age of 75. Some Senators have been appointed in their 30’s. Democracies need to evolve and represent current political climates; Senators into their 40th year of their term cannot provide that representation.

  • The Senate is not a balanced representation of the people.
    Canada’s Parliament was not constructed with the knowledge that the country would encompass nearly as much territory as it eventually did, and as a result some of its mechanisms don’t make sense. As a result, our Senate representation is neither equal nor proportionate for each province – meaning that not all Provinces have an equal amount of Senators, but the numbers they do have are not based on their respective populations either. For example, BC has 1 senator for every 685,000 people, while PEI has 1 Senator for every 33,000 people. The make-up of the Senate is simply not fair, no matter how you look at it.

  • The appointment process leads to bad representatives
    The decision about who to appoint to Senate begins and ends with the Prime Minister of the day. Not only does this process lend itself to the Prime Minister rewarding those who have served him and the party well, it also ensures a very politically divided Senate chamber. Just as the House of Commons is divided by their party allegiances (Conservative, NPD, Liberal, etc.) as is the Senate. It is important for each political party to have strong representation in the Senate, so the Prime Minister will typically appoint those with very similar ideas. Thus the appointment of Senators by the Prime Minister leads to very partisan, strategic, and patronage appointments.

    Although the complaints are consistent, unfortunately the ideas for reform differ greatly. Though there is consensus that the balance of power in the Senate must be more equal, what is “fair” and “equal” differs greatly depending on what part of the country you are in.

    Avenues of Reform

    The ideas surrounding Senate reform can be generalized and divided into four separate camps.

  • “Triple E” Senate: Equal, Elected, and Effective
    Not only is there a movement to ensure all Senators are elected for term periods (i.e. 4 years), but there is also belief that Senate representation should be equal for each province. The balance of representation in the House of Commons is very skewed; where Newfoundland and Labrador gets to elect 7 MPs, Ontario elects 95 – almost 3 times that of Atlantic Canada combined. How does a province like Newfoundland ever get to have a substantial say in the management of its own people? The United States Senate is comprised of 2 Senators from every state – no matter their size or population. If Canada were to adopt a system where an equal number of senators were elected from each province, it may lead to a more effective upper chamber.

  • Moderate Reforms
    There are problems with the Triple E Senate idea – namely the idea of “equal representation” is not particularly appealing for Provinces like Ontario and Quebec who currently hold the balance of power. Why would they want that to change? So there is a movement – adopted by the current Government under Prime Minister Harper – to make minor tweaks to the Senate’s makeup. This includes allowing for the election of Senators for an eight year term, with no re-organization of representation numbers.

  • Abolishment
    There are some out there – such as the federal NDP party – who advocate for the complete elimination of the Senate altogether, citing that it’s more trouble than it’s worth. What tangible results are achieved by the Senate? Look at how much money we waste on the Senate! It’s just a place to give friends of the Prime Minister of the day cushy jobs!

  • Maintain the Status Quo
    If everyone agrees something should be done, why has there been no change to the Senate in modern politics? Underlying all of these ideas of reform is the reality that any major change to the Senate chamber’s makeup requires that the majority of the House of Commons votes for the change, the majority of the Senate votes for the change, and that 2/3 of the provinces in Canada – that make up over 50% of the entire population in Canada – vote for the change. This is no small feat. Though Nova Scotia might think it fair to have equal representation in the Senate as Ontario, why would Ontario voluntarily let go of its power?

    So What Next?

    As a result of the difficulty and political dangers of entering into a debate surrounding Senate reform, the status quo has been maintained for a long time; since it is such a political gamble open up that can of worms in Canada, the subject has almost been entirely avoided for the better part of 20 years. Prime Minister Mulroney made attempts at Senate Reform in the 80’s with his Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, however both were eventually defeated after an extensive national debate.

    Some provinces like Alberta have taken the lead in Senate reform themselves – by electing “Senators in Waiting” who they put forward as their recommendation to the Prime Minister for vacant seats. Prime Minister Harper has endorsed this process.

    But now Stephen Harper’s majority Conservative government looks poised to finally make moderate reforms – reforms that include Senator elections and term limits. But a number of the Provinces are insisting that the federal government cannot act unilaterally, and that any changes must require the approval of 2/3 of the provinces representing over 50% of Canada’s population.

    And so as Parliament resumes in the Fall, let the fireworks begin. Hopefully with this background knowledge of how it all works and what the issues are, Newfoundland and Labrador can make a strong case for what IT wants from Senate reform. How do you think our province can benefit from reform? What would you like to see? Let us know on the message boards below.

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