Canadian Senate Reform: Credit Where It’s Due

Blake Hamm
Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, shakes hands with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, right, before the Globe and Mail hosted leaders' debate Thursday, September 17, 2015  in Calgary.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

Conservative leader Stephen Harper, left, shakes hands with Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, right, before the Globe and Mail hosted leaders’ debate Thursday, September 17, 2015 in Calgary.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

I once joked that in a country as diverse as Canada, it is impossible to please everybody. Instead, the goal is to displease everyone equally. That seems to be the made-in-Canada solution for our country’s national problems. It may also be why we can never agree on amending our constitution.

Complaining about the Senate ranks high in our national pastimes. It’s right up there with hockey, maple syrup and apologizing. Yet until recently, no one knew how it could be fixed, or what to do to fix it. Now we have the answers from our two most recent Prime Ministers, Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau.

With confederation in 1867, the Senate was intended as a chamber of regional balance, meant to allay the concerns of the Maritimes joining the more populous Ontario and Quebec. Later, this was extended to the West as well, so that each of those four regions received 24 Senators. A further 6 Senators were added for Newfoundland, and the three territories are represented by 1 Senator each.

Originally intended to be a chamber for the country’s regions, and provide “sober second thought” to the House of Commons, Senate appointments by the Prime Minister quickly became partisan. A vicious circle has ensued ever since, with either Liberals or Conservatives appointing a vast majority of their own to the Senate, followed by the other taking power and doing the same to equal out the balance.

Senate Reform has often been discussed to no avail. A “Triple-E Senate,” standing for equal, elected, and effective, was a popular idea, where each province would elect an equal number of Senators. The closest this came to fruition was in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord, which contained numerous constitutional amendments beyond just the Senate. However, perhaps owing to its nature of being a national solution and displeasing everyone, the Accord failed in referendums and the Senate remained as is.

Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper made Senate reform a central plank of his campaign platform. He proposed term limits of 8 years, and appointments through consultative elections with the provinces. To his credit, despite being stymied by Senators and provincial premiers, he pushed these measures continually and ultimately referred the matter to the Supreme Court.

For practical purposes, the Reference re Senate Reform dealt a death blow to both electing Senators and abolishing them. Electing Senators or changing its composition would require the approval of the federal Parliament, plus seven provinces representing 50% of Canada’s population. Abolishing the Senate requires the approval of all ten provinces and Parliament. The Maple Leafs will win the Stanley Cup before either of those happen.

Prime Minister Trudeau’s proposal makes the best of a bad situation. Severing ties with the House of Commons, he pledges non-partisan appointments of Independent Senators. A committee of 5, three appointed by Trudeau, and two from the province of appointment, will provide a short list to Trudeau, who will have the final say.

There are valid questions to be sure. How “non-partisan” will the appointments be, if Trudeau has control over a majority of the committee AND final say over the selection? Who is to say he won’t fill up the Senate with partisans, just as past Prime Ministers have done? Senators remain unaccountable with terms lasting until they turn 75. Yet at this juncture, considering the constraints of the Constitution, things look as good as they could.

Naturally there will be criticism, because there will be losers and winners. British Columbia is not satisfied because it is under-represented in the Senate according to its population. But allocating Senators based on population duplicates the House of Commons, and it is not compatible with equality by region or province. And how would you convince other provinces to agree when they would see their relative share of the Senate decrease?

Triple-E proponents will be disappointed, but again, how would you convince overrepresented provinces to decrease their representation? If equal representation from the provinces is impossible, equal representation from the regions must be a close second. If elected Senators are impossible, perhaps Senators independent of the Prime Minister will provide effective provincial voices.

An added benefit is the overall structure of Parliament won’t change. The House of Commons will remain the dominant chamber, where much of our unwritten constitution, including choosing the Prime Minister and confidence votes, originates. No new constitutional question of deadlock between two democratically elected chambers need be answered, like in Australia. The Senate would revert to its original function, only with less partisanship. At least Westminster purists should be satisfied.

Politics is the art of the possible. Stephen Harper found out what was possible and what wasn’t with Senate Reform. He unsuccessfully pushed for drastic reform, which paved the way for Trudeau’s more modest proposal. Now it is up to Justin Trudeau to execute. Both Prime Ministers have spent political capital, and both were needed to advance the issue. Trudeau would have faced more criticism for not democratizing the Senate if not for Harper attempting just that.

At the end of the day, if most Canadians even begrudgingly admit the Senate is better than it was before, that is a victory. Give credit where it is due: to Stephen Harper for finding the road to practical Senate reform, and to Justin Trudeau for taking us down it – even if we all remain displeased with the outcome.