Got Senate reform if you want it

Three possible explanations for Stephen Harper’s feckless approach to the Senate.


I can think of three possible explanations for Stephen Harper’s feckless approach to the Senate. Two speak to his long term strategic goals:

1. He hopes to spur real reform to make the Senate a more effective and legitimate federal institution.


2. He doesn’t want reform. What wants is to exacerbate and accelerate the decline of federal institutions, in order to further undermine Ottawa’s legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.

But there’s a third possibility, which is that

3. For Harper,  Senate reform is just a tactical device designed to placate his base, enrage the opposition, and titillate the media.

My belief is that Harper’s strategic goal is (2), and he’s happy to engage in (3) to the extent that it might also result in (2). But let’s adopt the principle of charity and assume that Harper actually wants to reform the Senate in order to improve the federal government. Or if that’s too much of a mental stretch, let’s pretend that we had a prime minister who actually cared about the legitimacy and effectiveness of federal institutions. How should we reform the Senate?

Let me take the occasion to once again break a lance for Campbell Sharman’s 2008 paper for the IRPP on how to give political legitimacy to an un-elected Senate.

What bedevils the debate over the Senate  is the assumption, shared by  reformers and abolitionists alike, is that the status quo is  intolerable in a modern democracy and the only way to give the Senate  any legitimacy is to turn it into an elective chamber. Sometimes, though, it takes an outsider to give your slumbering dogmas a shake.   

In his study “Political Legitimacy for an Appointed Senate,” Sharman  writes that one of the unstated motivations for Senate reform is the belief that the Canadian Parliament is a degenerate bicameral system, with a loafy upper house that looks rundown and antiquated compared to the vigorous Triple-E (equal, elected and effective) senates found in Australia and the United States. But as he points out, it’s actually more accurate to say that Canada is a unicameral system with the Senate as a vestigial parliamentary organ.

This is an important insight. In the Australian and U.S. states, only Queensland and Nebraska are unicameral, while not a single Canadian  provincial government is bicameral. At the federal level, the existence of the Senate does not affect the near-total dominance of the Commons, in representative legitimacy, democratic accountability, and effective political authority. Adding an effective and elected Senate would seriously upset the country’s political culture — perhaps in some ways for the better, though the odds are it would create far more problems than it would solve.

So why not simply abolish the Senate? For two reasons. The first is that it isn’t going to happen. Ever. People can yap all they want about turfing out the Senators and turning the chamber into a condo development, but doing so would require a constitutional amendment, and that is simply not on offer.

But more importantly, the truth is the Senate actually does some good work. Just what the upper house is even for is, of course, a matter of longstanding dispute (regional balance? A check on the Commons?), but what it does best is the old idea of serving as a chamber of sober second thought: effective scrutiny of legislation and inquiry into the activities of the government and its various agencies. To give just three examples, there is Michael Kirby’s work on health care reform, Colin Kenny’s work on defence policy, and — most intriguingly — the Senate’s remarkable intervention in the face of the Chretien government’s panicky anti-terror legislation in 2001.

The upshot is the Canadian Senate has a great deal of what political scientists call “output legitimacy,” a fancy way of saying it does work that is relevant and effective. What it lacks is “input legitimacy,” which just means that the way Senators are selected has very little credibility.

The trick to reforming the Senate, then, is to fix the appointments process in a way that preserves its capacity to scrutinize the government and legislation without disrupting the constitutional balance in the House of Commons. Probably the most promising possibility is a version of the method adopted for choosing members of the British House of Lords. While most Lords are still appointed through a partisan nomination process, there’s also an independent commission that vets and then selects a number of non-partisan members from a list of names selected by the public.

In the end, though, all of this might be just whistling in the wind, since it isn’t clear Stephen Harper is serious about Senate reform. Even such a mild reform as a more legitimate appointments process would involve the prime minister actually focusing his attention and expending some political capital. Given Harper’s fecklessness on this score, it would appear that the status quo continues to serve everyone’s interests, except those of Canadians.


Got Senate reform if you want it

  1. I agree, Harper himself having declared that it matters not to him whether Canada has one, two or ten national governments.  Weaking Canada’s institutions is a clear objective. 

  2.  Can’t we apply a Wells rule here? Least interesting outcome (or something to that effect?). The Conservative Party has become the Liberal Party. There is now no difference between them. They are now behaving as Liberals have behaved for the past, what, 100 years?

    My expectations are so very, very low with this particular group of politicians. 

    • Even as we speak Steve is trying to decide whether to go with the: A plan which is a plan, motif; the priorities is hard one; or the ever popular up raised digit while simultaneously sliding and pirouetting down the banister one. Although he is building up quite a repertoire of us own now. Still, it must be a comfort to know you have at least a century of blaming the other guy out in front of you. Wonder if he’ll have the chutzpah to keep it up if the LPC croaks?  

  3. There’s really nothing special going on here. The Conservatives are the Liberals with blue signs. They’ve systematically become everything they used to oppose.

    The only interesting part is watching conservative bloggers try to spin it as somehow okay, particularly when their own posts complaining about the Liberals doing it are flung back in their own faces. Gotta love flagrant hypocrisy.

    • Nicely phrased.  

    • “…They’ve systematically become everything they used to oppose…”

      (1834–1902). The historian and moralist, who was otherwise known simply as Lord Acton, expressed this opinion in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887:
      “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”

      Perhaps if there was a real opposition that could be taken seriously as a threat in the next election, then they’d only be corrupt, rather than absolutely corrupt? 

    •  I do believe that the biggest opponents of the Conservative Party will be those Conservatives who will eventually feel that they have been had by Harper’s brand of conservatism (blue flag neo-classical liberalism.  Yes, neo-classical may seem oxymoronic).  What’s old is new again.

  4. “He doesn’t want reform. What wants is to exacerbate and accelerate the decline of federal institutions, in order to further undermine Ottawa’s legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.”

    I don’t understand this point of view because conservatives like to preserve institutions, that’s what makes them conservative. Liberals who argue this point of view – ” … exacerbate and accelerate the decline of federal institutions … ” – remind me an awful lot of hetero’s who claim gays will destroy sanctity of marriage even tho heteros wrecked marriage decades ago when they started to divorce in large numbers. Don’t be hetero, Libs, it is not nice or inclusive.

    I am re-reading Virginia Postrel’s The Future and it’s Enemies at the moment, Potter, so I am even more full of piss and vinegar than I normally am when it comes to bureaucracy. As far as I am concerned, I think we should talk to Americans and see if they would drop a nuclear bomb or two on Ottawa. That would sort out my issues with Feds quite nicely. 

    If we can’t nuke Ottawa, I guess I would accept Senate reform that meant only people who did good works for their community could be appointed or we hold nation wide lottery every so often and 400 random people become Senators for x-amount of years. 

    Crikey! This was a meaty post for Thursday morning, thank you Potter.

    • I don’t understand this point of view because conservatives like to preserve institutions, that’s what makes them conservative.

      So, there’s one vote for the notion that the federal PCs destroyed the Reform Party in the end, and not the other way around.  And all evidence to date would appear to prove this, given that virtually all of Harper’s moves as PM follow the mold of Jean Chretien and not Preston Manning.

      It does make one wonder, however, if there will come a point when conservatives, finally convinced that their party/leader has become everything they used to hate, will decide that they need to break away from the Tories once again and form a new Reform Party.  Then again, given how complete Harper’s transformation into Chretien is at this point, and the seemingly complete absence of any revolt against this fact, it would appear that Harper might have to contract Bell’s Palsy and start speaking with a Shawinigan accent before his conservative followers are roused from their slumber,

      • “… there’s one vote for the notion that the federal PCs destroyed the Reform Party …. ”

        Yes … absolutely … with bells on it. Our major parties are quite conservative in that they all want to control us in one way or another. No major party says Canadians over 19 are adults and are clever enough to organize their own lives. 

        I don’t understand what happens to conservatives once they win election and form governments. All of a sudden, they abandon their principles and base doesn’t care. Conservatives warm their cockles with justifications that other side would be worse and do nothing to promote or advance conservatism. 

        “Conservative: disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., or to restore traditional ones, and to limit change.”  dictionary.com

        • Burke is dead 

    • I like the lottery idea.  Taking it one step further, picking senators kind of like picking Juries could be a good mechanism: a certain number more candidates than necessary would be chosen by lot, and they would go through some kind of mutually-agreed-upon vetting for suitability (past KKK presidencies, ability to read, etc.), and those selected would get to sit for a term of X years (7 or 8 sound good?).  We’d probably want some kind of measure to preserve continuity and build up institutional memory and capacity (because I think having Kennys, Segals, and Kirbys in the Senate is a good thing), so perhaps there could be some kind of mechanism whereby the Senators themselves would choose a portion of their membership (say 15-25%) who would remain in the Red Chamber for a second non-renewable term of X more years.

      • “… some kind of measure to preserve continuity and build up institutional memory and capacity …. ”

        Absolutely. I prefer creative destruction, chaos, but I realize sober second thoughts also have their usefulness. Major parties can appoint 3 or 4 wise heads, they would be like coaches, and Senators would be players. I would also stagger lottery – 450 people total in Senate – every 2 years 150 new people show up and six year term limit. Something like that – details to be decided later. 

        “…  and they would go through some kind of mutually-agreed-upon vetting for suitability …”

        I know what you are thinking but I don’t like too many rules and regs. I would say convicted criminals are not welcome but anyone else is eligible. I prefer to know who the nutters are and what they are doing rather than allowing the idjits to keep their hateful ideas to themselves.

        Also, too much regulation leads to what you are trying to stop. 

        Gary Becker – Nobel winner – “…. also presented evidence that discrimination is more pervasive in more-regulated, and therefore less-competitive, industries.” Library of Economics and Liberty

        • Interesting. Turn the Senate over to only Independents, ban any party involvement in the upper house. I would also add that the Senate should feature equal representation- each province gets 10 or 15 senators. Political parties would only be able to influence the Commons. 

          Oh what am I smoking….G-D parties would never allow that. We’d have to have some kind of party that would be in favour of reform. Hey! There’s an idea. We could call them, um…..let me think……. 

        • The Senate’s a nice room that currently only sits 106, I think it could be expanded a bit, but 450 might be a bit more than a bit.

      • My proposal, based off of the short-lived (1925-1928) reform of the Nova Scotia Legislative Council, with a slight tweak, would be:

        1) Implement the UK Parliament Act of 1911, so that the Senate’s veto is limited to two years; if the Commons passes the same bill in three successive legislative sessions, it goes into effect regardless of the lack of the Senate’s assent.

        2) Reduce term of office from life to 10 years, without possibility of reappointment.

        3) Make appointments via non-partisan commission, rather than purely partisan appointment (this was not in the Nova Scotia reform).

    • Your post illustrates that it’s the selection process that needs changing most.  On that I agree.  I just don’t see a need for another elected chamber.

    • Are Reformers conservatives?

      • Good question. I would say Reform type people are what used to be known as liberal but now are classified as conservative because Liberal party has embraced social democratic/ progressive policies for the past 40-50 years. Old fashioned liberals have no comfortable home in Canada, we are vagabonds.

        • Not really related to liberal in any way I can think of. 
          But Reform Party of Canada (90’s) was populist which brings it closer to NDP. If Reform rose out of Social Credit  as well as discredited PC (Mulroney style) , you can look back to the curious twins sprouted by populism of the 30’s, the Socreds in Alberta and CCF (later NDP) in Sask. They even pursued some of the  same goals, anti eastern big business pro west independence, and fighting for the little guy. 
          So how can Preston Manning support this version of Harper conservatism? Beats me.

  5. I don’t know why people are so upset over these Senate appointments.  Harper needs all these Senators (that he promised he’d never appoint) to help him eliminate the deficit (that he promised we’d never need), that we only went into to fight the recession (that he told us we weren’t going to have).

    What’s the problem?

  6. I disagree that the senate has “output legitimacy”. The most recent time that they overturned legislation from the House of Commons; they did not debate the legislation at all or even have a committee review the legislation at all. They simply called a surprise vote on the matter and voted against the bill without any discussion. This was in the matter of whether or not the government should have a plan to meet their greenhouse gas reduction targets.

    Sober second thought indeed. Planning ahead for long term problems? Our senate thinks no such foolishness is appropriate.  

    • The most disturbing thing about that episode was the lack of a public outcry over the repudiation of the Common’s will. 

  7. Senate shouldn’t be abolished but reformed. And Stephen Harper will reform it, he hasn’t forgotten or changed his mind about that.

    I am surprised by all that people that is surprised by his appointees yesterday, since when Stephen Harper does something that doesn’t help him somehow, he knows it looks sleazy but he has bigger goal in mind, and that’s NOT to alienate half of Canada.

    • Have they announced the date of the first round of constitutional negotiations between the federal and provincial governments? 

      • Not yet that I am aware of. 

    • Claudia, girlfriend, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but he’s not going to call tomorrow morning.  

      • Oh but he has already : ) 

    •  I find your lack of lack of faith disturbing.

      • Haha today is happy thursday, that is all! : ) 

  8. Unfortunately PMSH makes all of his Senate appointees pledge not to perform the function of sober-seconf-thought but to approve whatever legislation his government proposes, warts and all (see the legislation to prevent veiled voting that doesn’t prevent veiled voting and to require voters to use photo identification without requiring that voters use photo identification, for example)

  9. “…an independent commission that vets and then selects a number of non-partisan members from a list of names selected by the public…”

    This, I believe is the the answer to the entire problem. A citizen’s committee is probably the single most efficient, democratic and non-partisan way of selecting senators.

    It’s so simple and so obvious an answer in fact, that I have to wonder why it hasn’t been brought up on a regular basis as an answer to this problem.

    The senate’s powers aren’t the problem, its appointment is.

  10. Geez, they are not even back in the HoC yet…..with a majority they can finally get started on what was set out in 2006.  MP James Moore on the radio yesterday stated that senate reform is still part of the mandate.  He said that Smith, Manning and Verner were put in senate as they represented Montreal, Quebec City and NL, areas lacking in Conservative MPs.  He said they were dammed if they do dammed if they didn’t.  I’m on the same page as Claudia with this!!!
    In the fall of 2006, Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper put forth several limited proposals for reforming the Senate, with the aim of making the Upper House more accountable:

    Limiting Terms of Senators: The Conservative government introduced legislation to limit the terms of Senators to eight years. Currently, Senators serve until the age of 75, without term limits.Selection of Members: The Conservative government also committed to introducing legislation that would require non-binding elections for new Senators. The Prime Minister would then use his/her discretionary powers to appoint the winners of those elections to the Senate.


    • “He said they were dammed if they do dammed if they didn’t.”

      Actually the public [ that’s us, the big BOSS, remember?] just said no! Apparently SH thinks he knows best whatever we say. There is no damned if you do or don’t about it at all.
      As for reform. Now that he has a majority in both houses, just what is the current excuse for not going the constitutional route?…does he need first to secure a majority in the SCC?…fix the global recession..solve global warming….save our arctic from foreign predators…bring the SC back for the Leafs? The time for excuses for SH is over…yet still his admirers persist in dreaming them up.

      • Senate reform requires provincial consent, so a majority doesn’t guarantee he could get it.

  11. I’m pretty much in AP’s camp on this one[ at least in as far as i really grasp the whole issue.] The senate or lords has always been a sort of knacker’s yard for deadwood to me; although i can be persuaded as to its value. Still, a part of me wishes it were on some kind of vounteer citizenry basis. Guess that’s unworkable, given the complexity of todays world? [ anyone really want to see say Maude at one end of the chamber earnestly parsing every jot and tittle, and Ezra busily concocting an alternative moral universe at the other?] Some forces of nature are best not constrained by public institutions. OTOH…insitutional discipline has been known to make a tolerably honest person[s] out of of the whole clothe of partisanship.[ If waffling is the primary prerequisite of the new chamber…i’m your man!]
    Someone on Geddes’ blog posited a second house of independents[ perhaps at least partially pre-suggested by the public.] I like. On the face of it , it seems a fine idea to pry away the both the fingers of this pm, any future pm, and those of the various parties, away from the ageless throats of our senators.
    Wow! A publically approved second chamber [ still appointed – therefore less legit then the HoCs] A sort of back seat driver who never actually has a final say over which road we take – like having your gran/gramps on your butt full time! What are the chances of that happening? It might even bypass the House in popularity. [ particularly if there really was an element of volunteerism attached to the buggy]  MMmmm…zero chance then wouldn’t you say?

    • I can’t wait for Harper to re-ask Gwyn Morgan to be the Federal Appointments Commissioner – he was to be paid a $1.00 a year. 


      • My gran would do it for a quarter of that. What’s more she wouldn’t likely throw in any unctuous remarks about immigrants either… actually she might have. But least she has the excuse of ignorance, something a CEO of a major oil company can’t credibly lay claim to.

        • You disappoint me TA if you bought into the smears from Peggy Nash.  His comments on multiculturalism in some countries not working have proven to be true.  Plus his observation that economic immigrants come with more skills than refugees is what it is – an observation.

  12. Andrew I’m going to push back on both your arguments for keeping the senate:

    (1)  You argue we can’t have constitutional reform.  A referendum could easily be won on eliminating the senate by a leader with the political will to hold it.  I forget the rules on constitutional reform but a clear majority of Canadians opting to shut it down would be sufficient to spark an effective process.

    (2)  You argue the senate does good work.  But that work could be done much more efficiently without the machinery of a massively expensive senate behind it.  It’s a bit like encouraging everybody to eat big macs because they have vegetables on them.  There are much healthier and efficient ways to eat enough vegetables. 

    • As for your number 2, care to give any examples, or is this just another of those mythical, “there’s got to be something better, even though I don’t know what it is” ideas?

      There is yet another value to the senate which Potter has not put forward. The senate also serves as a type of counterweight to the swings of populism and fads.  There’s a reason those guys are there for a generation, they serve as a type of long-term memory of what Canada was, and so keep us from whipsawing too fast based on current events.

      Senators serve both as reminder, and penance, for the leadership Canada has chosen over the years.

      • i like the counterweight argument as well. There’s something to be said for having a council of elders…it might help if we made the appointment process as apolitical and based as much as possible on a broad acceptance of just what constitutes merit and accomplishment across this country. 

  13. 2. He doesn’t want reform. What wants is to exacerbate and accelerate
    the decline of federal institutions, in order to further undermine
    Ottawa’s legitimacy in the eyes of Canadians.

    My belief is that Harper’s strategic goal is (2)

    Potter, we know you’ve got a hate-on for Harper and for conservatives.  But now you’ve taken it to thje paranoid conspiracy theory level, along the lines of the truthers and the birthers.

    I wonder what causes someone to become unhinged like you are.

    •  a comparisan to truthers and birthers…now isn’t that a tad overthetop in itself? At least AP is working from some kind of circumstantial evidence/track record that is within our solar system. The faith that libertarians continue to have in this PM would be touching, if it wasn’t also a little pathetic.

    • So your explanation is? 

  14. I don’t think Harper is serious about reforming the Senate,  He is a post-constitutionalist (someone who isn’t limited by the constitution).  He does not need the constitution for legitimacy as he is the state. 

  15. If Canadians do not wish to be straight-jacketed by the constitution, the provinces and territories would need to separate from Canada in order to form a new country called “Canada.” 

  16. The mainstream media’s whining about the new Senate appointments is dripping with hypocrisy.

    The MSM was absolutely giddy when two time loser Elizabeth May was on the verge of being appointed to the Senate and to the Cabinet of the Dion-Layton-Duceppe coalition government.

    It will be interesting to watch the NDP and the Liberals and the mainstream media vote against and oppose an elected Senate sometime within the next two year.

  17. Why not make the Senate hereditary?

  18.  The libs have defeated every Senate Reform Bill . Now they can’t. Plus while it would take opening the constitution to abolish the Senate it can be reformed by individual provinces setting up election mechanisms like Alberta did. So if Wall and Dexter have a problem let them get on with it.
    Same for the rest

    • But the Alberta system isn’t formal; it only works because Harper has agreed to appoint whoever was elected.  But no one before Harper did that and anyone after him can go back to the old system. 

  19. The corrent proposition is that all members of the Senate should have previous elected experience, au contraire, I propose that any partisan political position should eliminate candidates. As a first step I would select current Order of Canada recipients with extrodinary non-political accomplishments. This would be followed by a vetted appointment system of the widest variety of Canadian experience. 

    • Maybe the Order of Canada members elect the Senators?  Like how the lords elect which ones get to sit in the Lords?

  20. Why not really dream? Harper has appointed ‘like-thinking’ senators so that when it is time (NOW) for the Triple E Senate that Harper has in his history pocket; there will be people there who will vote for it. Think so???? 

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