The Canadian Senate – A second-rate second chamber

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 3rd August 2015

In the current debate about Lords reform it can often be tempting to look for easy solutions which broadly keep the structure of the Lords as it is, but deal with some of its defects. If the Lords is too big, why not simply cap its size? Perhaps we could introduce a mandatory retirement age? Get rid of the hereditary peers and the bishops and leave the rest! A few of these ideas and more have been mooted over the past week in the UK.
But we don’t need to look far to find a real life example of why this doesn’t work. A quick look across the pond brings into focus the example of the Canadian Senate.

The Senate’s 105 members are appointed by the Governor-General of Canada (the Queen’s representative, fulfilling her position while she is outside Canada) on the advice of the Canadian Prime Minister. Senators may serve until they are 75 years old, the mandatory retirement age. The Canadian Senate is also designed to be regionally representative, with 24 Senators for four ‘regions’ of Canada – Ontario, Quebec, the so-called ‘Maritime’ provinces and the ‘Western’ provinces, with the remaining 9 Senators being from the incredibly sparsely populated Northern Territories.

Yet, as with the Lords in the UK, the Senate is steeped in controversy. For years Western provinces have complained that the Senate underrepresented them as the West has rapidly grown in population, while the Maritime provinces have stagnated. An ongoing expenses scandal has led to Senate reform becoming an ongoing topic in Canadian discussion, and the Senate has become widely mocked by people such as satirist Rick Mercer.

In reaction to the ongoing scandal, the Liberal Party leader even ejected his party’s entire Senate group from his party’s caucus.

But expenses scandals, and poor regional representation are not the Senate’s greatest faults. Its real faults lie in the fact that it is a chamber of political patronage. Even more clearly than in the UK, the Prime Minister of the day simply attempts to fill the upper house with members of their own party.

After nine years of rule by Conservative PM Stephen Harper the Senate has, unsurprisingly, a Conservative majority of 17. Before the 2008 election Harper, faced with 18 vacancies, decided to attempt to fill all 18 to make sure a Liberal-NDP coalition wouldn’t do the same if they reached office.

The smaller size of the Senate in fact encourages this behaviour as PMs must take opportunities to expand their influence in the Senate, while simultaneously making it easier to take control of the Senate with a smaller number of appointees. While the House of Lords is slightly harder for one party to dominate, Canada’s Senate has come to be seen as a subservient lapdog of whichever Canadian government is in power.

Lords reform in a house that remains based on patronage may well result in entrenching it. Only an upper house that empowers voters, rather than politicians, in the choice of their representatives can deliver a truly effective, representative chamber – whether that’s in Canada or the UK.

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