Canadian Commentary: Constitution and Politics

What do you do with a useless Senate?

April 1998

The Andy Thompson fiasco has served as a reminder that Canada's Senate is a national embarassment. For years, no-one has supported the present form of Canada's Upper House except the group of politicians benefitting from it at any given moment. Yet, like the Senate itself, the issue of Senate reform is ever-present, but rarely moves to the forefront of the public's attention. For one thing, no-one can agree on a better system; for another, the barriers to serious Senate reform are imposing (it requires the agreement of every province as well as the federal government).

One popular option, championed by many media commentators and the NDP, is to simply abolish the Senate. This course of action sounds attractive (simple, decisive), but it would be a mistake. In a parliamentary system such as Canada's, where a majority government wields almost complete power, it is important to have a body that can restrain any excesses or abuses of power (just think how Ontario under Harris could have benefitted from a recalcitrant upper house). In addition, the Senate performs - or at least should perform - several other useful functions.

1) It provides a degree of regional balancing (i.e. it is not as dominated by Ontario), which is important in a large, diverse nation such as Canada.
2) It enables a party which wins power while lacking representatives from a particular province to appoint a cabinet minister from that province.
3) It provides a different perspective on national issues. Its members sit for an extended term and can have a longer-term perspective than Members of Parliament.
4) Senators are selected gradually, making the chamber potentially representative of Canadian opinion over the long term, rather than a "snap-shot" of opinion in the manner of the House of Commons.

The best course of action would be to reform the Senate so that it still performs these functions, while gaining more legitimacy. The most potent reform proposal so far has been the "Triple-E" Senate - elected, equal and effective. Championed especially by westerners, this proposal would see every province have 10 Senators. While the proposal sounds attractive, it would in fact result in severe distortions of power. For one thing, it would mean that the Atlantic provinces, with only 5% of Canada's population, would have 40% of the seats in the Senate. Furthermore, Quebec, which already senses it is losing influence in Canada, would never agree to giving up its quarter share of the Senate's seats. Since such a radical reform would require the consent of all of the provinces - and it is not conceivable that Quebec or even Ontario would agree - it is basically impossible. As long as Senate reform is stuck in Triple-E mode, the Senate will never change.

Yet, Senate reform is not really all that difficult. The basic factors are as follows:

Here follows my own proposal for Senate reform. It is simple and do-able, and yet it would make the Senate the useful institution is should be.

The above proposal in itself would already be a vast improvement in the Senate, and it would be easy to implement (probably not even requiring a constitutional amendment). But there are further options which would improve the Senate even more:

These proposals are, for the most part, fairly simple, and yet they would transform the Senate from a national embarassment into a useful part of Canada's democracy.

April 17, 1998

Back to main page

Copyright Dylan Reid

Contents may not be reproduced in whole or in part without the written consent of Dylan Reid