Reforming the Senate: mission impossible?

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The Senator Chambers in Ottawa

The Senator Chambers in Ottawa

Dr. Gordon Barnhart examines reform

Article: Christell Simeon – Contributor

After the 2013 scandal involving three conservative Senators that rocked Canada’s political landscape, there have been heated debates on Senate reform. However, there is still no consensus on how the Senate should be reformed, abolished, or left as it is. This makes it difficult to see any real changes to the Senate structure for those still aggrieved by last year’s infamous Senate scandal. But is Senate reform a new issue in Canada? Certainly not.

Insight into the history of the Senate and Senate reform in Canada was at the center of the Stapleton Lecture held Thursday March 13, 2014 addressed by Dr. Gordon Barnhart, former Clerk of the Canadian Senate and Saskatchewan Legislature, as well as former Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan.

Upon Confederation, Canada examined the Senate structure of both the United States and United Kingdom in determining how their Senate should be structured. At the time, both the United States and United Kingdom had a Senate of nominated persons. Likewise, Canada decided to follow and structured their Senate with persons who would be nominated to sit in this upper chamber by the Prime Minister under the Constitution Act of 1867.

The Senate was given the same powers as the House of Commons, except that they could not decide on money bills. There were restrictions regarding who could be a senator that have since remained today. The only exception is that early Senators had to be landowners of property worth $4,000, which unfortunately meant that women, who did not possess property rights under the law, were denied the opportunity to be Senators. Although the property clause has remained, women can now be Senators.

According to Dr. Barnhart, the Senate became the foundation for ensuring linguistic diversity in Canada. This is because, although Ontario had the largest population, Quebec was very important to Canada’s new independent economy, so both Ontario and Quebec were each given 24 seats in the Senate.

It was not long after the establishment of the Senate in 1867 that David Mills made the first appeal for Senate reform in April 1874. He proposed that the provinces should select their own Senators. According to Dr. Barnhart, in the first 95 years, there were only 5 attempts at Senate reform, while in the last 50 years, there have been 17 attempts at Senate reform. Unfortunately so far, the only real changes that have been made to the Senate were done by Prime Minister Stephen Harper, in which term limits were applied to the length of service of Senators, and most recently by liberal leader, Justin Trudeau to remove Liberal Senators from party caucus.

The main issue with Senate reform is that there is no consensus on how the Senate should be reformed by those advocating for this change. Abolition is a popular solution put forward by the opposition party, NDP, and supported by Saskatchewan’s Premier, Brad Wall. There was the “Triple E” proposal in which each province would get equal representation of six Senators largely rejected by Ontario and Quebec who would lose their dominance in the Senate. The well known Charlottetown and Meech Lake accords were failed attempts of reform in Canada. Lastly, there is the 7/50 suggestion where there would be an elected Senate consisting of 7 provinces representing 50 per cent of the population.

With the future being unclear concerning Senate reform, especially with most of the proposed reforms involving constitutional change, Dr. Barnhart concludes that Senate reform would simply remain just a talking point in Canada.

Image: Saffron Blaze

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