Canadian Senate Analysis

The current government of Canada has remained in place since the British North America Act, 1867, which established the Parliament for Canada to be comprised of three parts: the Crown, the Senate, and the House of Commons.[1] Unique to Canada’s government, which is based on the Westminster Parliamentary System, is that the upper house of parliament, or the Senate, is comprised of unelected officials. For a large portion of Canada’s history there has been a debate concerning the Senate, largely concerning its unelected officials. While there has consistently been a discussion on if the Senate should be changed, Canada’s political parties cannot agree on if this change should be a reform of the Senate or its abolishment. In recent years this debate has been revitalized due to scandals concerning senators, Stephen Harper’s commitment to reform the Senate, and the Supreme Court ruling on what would need to be done to reform the Senate. While it is understandable that some may want to push for the Senate to be abolished, this is much too drastic of a step for Canada to take and should not be taken just for simplicity’s sake. Democracies function and exist on mechanisms that help balance the power of the governing bodies to ensure that no one body or official has too much power and abolishing the Senate before attempting to reform it would give the House of Commons too much power.

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Prime Minister John MacDonald’s words are often used in explaining what the Senate does when he said that they are “the sober second thought.”[2] The reasoning for this is that by having politicians that are concerned for the long term stability and integrity of Canada and its laws and not concern themselves about being reelected and the perpetual campaign or about politics. Essentially they can give their full attention to being the check on the House of Commons. In addition, section 54 of the Canadian Constitution states that bills which deal with any aspect of money, including appropriating revenue or creating or removing a tax, must originate from the House of Commons.[3] What this then causes, because most bills deal with issues of revenue or taxes in some manner, the vast majority of bills come from the House of Commons, which creates a unique dynamic between the two houses.[4] The dynamic that is crated is an uneven balance between the two in terms of the amount of work that is done. The House of Commons is the primary body that creates legislation and the Senate largely provides review and second thought on the issues addressed in legislation. While this may be the original thought, there are flaws to it.

Many ideas on how to change the Senate have been proposed over the years, but to understand the current debate the most it is best to look at what each major political party current proposes. Currently the common discourse about the Senate is divided into three areas: main the status quo; keep the Senate, but reform it; or abolish the Senate in its entirety. Political parties of Canada have often differed on how the Senate should be approached and dealt with along the three lines. The New Democratic Party (NDP), especially in recent years, has been vocal proponents of abolishing the senate. The NDP has even gone as far as creating a website to promote the idea of abolishing the Senate, citing its unelected nature and high costs as reasons for it to be abolished.[5] The Conservative Party, on the other hand, has taken a different route and has attempted to reform it. Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party attempted to create a system whereby senators would be elected by the provinces for nine years.[6] The legislation that proposed this came in 2011, but the constitutionality of this effort immediately came into question and went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court responded in 2014 when it ruled that any Senate reform must go be approved by at least seven provinces and half of the population.[7] The Liberal Party has not been as loud as the others, but did eject the senators that were part of the Liberal Caucus and released a statement declaring their support for reform of the Senate and the ejection of the senators from the caucus is the first step.[8] Each of the major political is in favor of some change to the Senate, which is a reflection of the opinion of Canadians.

In addition to the political parties siding on the Senate being altered in some way, a majority of Canadians are in favor of some sort of change. According to a poll by Angus Reid conducted in April of 2015, 86% of Canadians are in favor of a change.[9] However, while an overwhelming majority of citizens are in favor of a change, there is a deep divide on what kind of change should exist. In the same poll by Angus Reid, 45% of Canadians are in favor of a reformed Senate while 41% are in favor of the Senate being abolished entirely.[10] Just as with the political parties, this mirrors the debate and contention between the political parties on exactly what should be done. Compared to the 2013 poll by Angus Reid on the same topic, in a year filled with news about scandals concerning senators, 50% of Canadians were in favor of abolishment vs. 43% for reform.[11] This shows, like with many topics, the interest and concern of people will differ a lot depending on how senators are conducting themselves and how the Senate is functioning.

The reason why the vast majority of criticisms that have been leveled against the Senate are about its unelected senators is because that is its biggest flaw. While it can be argued that removing the time consuming process of elections it gives senators a different set of priorities to focus on the work of Parliament, this is the exact reason why it is bad. By being selected rather than elected, senators are then beholden to those that choose them rather than the citizens of Canada. This then means that if a senator does not do a good job, or do the job at all, according to Canadians, it is a difficult process to get rid of them. Since these senators are then beholden to those that choose them, this creates a dangerous mechanism for internal party politics whereby those that are actually selected to be a senator may not be deserving of the position. On the contrary, as the NDP accuses the Conservative Party of doing, those that do work for the party or the Prime Minister may end up as a senator as a favor.[12]

The Senate is an undemocratic and authoritarian instrument that has to be reformed. Regardless of the scandals that have occurred or if the senators take advantage of their position, the critical point is there exists a need for senators to be elected. In the overall discourse, the idiosyncrasies of reform matter little as long as the process towards elections. What the Conservative Party proposed is a good step and is not a bad way to reform the Senate. An important part of this proposal that should be in all other proposals is that senators should have a longer term than those in the House of Commons. This is to help preserve some of the original motivations for the creation of the Senate, which is to have senators think about and be concerned for the long term integrity and development of Canada.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party’s efforts to reform the Senate have been described as failures, but they actually began one of the most important steps to changing the Senate: discovering the process. The Supreme Court ruled that reform or abolishment of the Senate cannot be done unilaterally by the House of Commons, which caused the Conservatives to cease their efforts and Prime Minister Harper to say that the ruling “leaves [them] with little choice” but to abandon their efforts.[13] Contrary to what Stephen Harper may say, the Supreme Court’s ruling gives the Conservatives and all of Canada reason to pursue reform and creates the parameters of how. The Supreme Court ruled that in order to reform the Senate, at least seven provinces would need to approve in addition to half of Canada while abolition would require unanimous consent.[14] Although this is a daunting process, if we take into account that 86% of Canadians want change, it is not impossible. While this 86%, when broken down accounts for 45% that are for reform and 41% that are for abolition, it can be assumed that many of those that want abolition would much favor reform rather than no change in the event that a vote was given to the general population.

Overall, the strengths and arguments for reform outweigh those of abolition. In addition to paving the way on how reform of the Senate must occur, the Supreme Court also gave a strong argument for reform over abolition: it is easier. While there may be arguments to be made for to having a unicameral parliament and abolishing the Senate, this path is too far to go without attempting reform first. If we are to accept that a bicameral legislature and Senate is part of our cultural heritage and that it does have merit in providing a check and balance to the actions of the House of Commons, there should at least be some effort to preserve it with reform. Some of the criticisms that have been used against the Senate including the significant cost to taxpayers compared to the lack of work can be rectified with reforming and making senators elected officials. By becoming elected officials, they are then accountable to the people that elected them into office and can easily be voted out if they do any work or their work is not sufficient to their electorate.

While there many strengths to reforming the Senate, there does exist problems that must be considered. The first, and possibly biggest, obstacle in regards to reforming the Senate is its inability to create bills concerning the allocation of revenue or use of taxes. Already this creates a great hindrance on the work of the Senate and is one of the reasons why the Senate does not produce nearly the same amount of bills as the House of Commons. If the event of serious efforts and progress to reform the Senate, it would have to be addressed if the Senate would be able to create bills concerning money or if the restriction would remain in place. On one hand, the removal of such restriction would encourage senators to produce more bills, but would diminish the role and authority of the House of Commons Insight into this can be drawn from Australia’s Parliament, which has an elected Senate, but still requires all money bills to begin in the House of Representatives, which is the lower house of the Australian Parliament.[15] This causes the same imbalance that occurs in Canada’s Parliament where the House of Representatives produce the vast majority of bills while the Senate produces much less, but gets to spend much more time in committee work.[16]

When looking at the overall discourse and benefits presented by reforming the Senate, it is something that should be pursued by Canada. The Senate still plays an important role by providing committee work, which the House of Commons often does not have enough time to do, and provides a needed balance. However, an unelected Senate is an artifact of an old system of government that must be updated to become more democratic. While there are strong arguments to be made for abolition, it should not be considered before at least attempting to reform. In addition, it is easier to reform rather than abolish so it is rational to at least turn the Senate into something Canadians want before losing it forever.


“A Legislative and Historical Overview of the Senate of Canada.” A Legislative and Historical Overview of the Senate of Canada. Accessed April 27, 2015.

“Abolish the Senate.” Roll up the Red Carpet: It’s Time to Abolish the Senate. Accessed April 29, 2015.

Angus Reid. “Future of the Senate: Majority of Canadians Split between Abolishing, Reforming the Red Chamber.” Accessed May 3, 2015.

CBC News. “Canada’s Senate: Sober Second Thought.” CBCnews. July 9, 2010. Accessed April 25, 2015.

Cody, Howard. “Lessons from Australia in Canadian Senate Reform.” Canadian Parliamentary Review. Accessed May 3, 2015.

“Constitution Acts, 1867 to 1982.” Legislative Services Branch. Accessed April 26, 2015.

Fine, Sean. “‘Stuck with Status Quo’ on Senate, Says Harper after Court’s Rejection.” The Globe and Mail. Accessed April 29, 2015.

“Parliamentary Institutions.” Parliamentary Institutions. Accessed April 25, 2015.

“Trudeau Leads on Senate Reform: Liberal Leader Takes Concrete Action to Remove Partisanship and Patronage from the Senate.” Accessed May 3, 2015.