Interesting times for the Canadian Senate

Following the election of a Liberal government last October reform of the all-appointed Senate has been high on the Canadian political agenda. Campbell Sharman offers an overview of past debates about Senate reform and an update on developments since October. He argues that under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plans the new government, much like the UK Conservative government in the House of Lords, will have to practice the art of persuasion to get their legislative programme through.

After more than nine years of Conservative government under Stephen Harper, the newly elected Liberal government of Justin Trudeau has a comfortable majority in the Canadian House of Commons. However, the Liberals do not have a majority in the appointed Senate, the upper house. This has been a familiar problem facing Canadian governments that have won office after a substantial period in opposition, since – unlike with appointments to the House of Lords in the UK – there is no expectation that Prime Ministers will appoint to the Senate from across the political spectrum, while independent appointments have to date been rare. Prime Minister Cameron may feel challenged by a House of Lords in which he does not enjoy a partisan majority, but the Conservatives are nonetheless the largest party; Prime Minister Trudeau faces a Senate where Conservatives outnumber Liberals by almost two to one.

Since 1867, senators have been chosen to represent the regional components of the federation, currently 105 members from the ten provinces and three territories.  Although the formula for regional appointments is specified in the Constitution, the selection of senators has been solely at the discretion of the Prime Minister. Senate appointments have no term and end only at age 75; the combination of personal selection by the Prime Minister and an unlimited term has encouraged patronage appointments based on party service and political connections. Almost invariably the Prime Minister appoints only from his own party. This has led to periods of one party dominance in the Senate as the partisan selections of previous prime ministers live on to cause problems for their successors.

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