Senate Reform in Canada

Feature by Jay Makarenko || Oct 1, 2006

Canada has a long and diverse history of Senate reform proposals, dating back to 1874, when the House of Commons heard, and rejected, a proposal to allow each province to select its own Senators. This article provides an overview and analysis of this history of Senate reform. It focuses strictly on the period between 1970 and 2007, and describes and compares individual reform proposals, as well as general trends during this period.

Giving the Provinces a Greater Voice in the Senate

Senate reform proposals in the 1970s

Democratic Legitimacy & the Triple-E Senate

Senate reform proposals in the 1980s

Meech Lake, Charlottetown & Senate Reform

Senate reform proposals in the 1990s

Non-constitutional Change & Senate Reform

2006 Conservative Senate reform proposal

Concluding Observations: Trends in Senate Reform Proposals

Shifts in approaches to Senate reform

Sources & Links for Further Information

Article sources & links for more information on this topic


Giving the Provinces a Greater Voice in the Senate

Senate reform proposals in the 1970s

In the 1960s and 1970s, the Canadian political system faced several significant regional pressures. Quebecers, for example, were beginning to develop a new sense of cultural identity and a desire for greater control over governance and public policy. At the same time, in Western Canada, there existed longstanding concerns that federal institutions were primarily oriented towards the interests of Quebec and Ontario, and, as such, were unresponsive to the unique needs and interests of Western Canadians.

These regional pressures brought with them provincial calls for changes in federal-provincial relations, and for a greater role for the provinces within Canada’s federal system. Regarding the Senate specifically, provincial concerns stemmed from the perception that the Upper House was not providing adequate regional/provincial representation in the federal legislative process. This, in turn, led to several reform proposals that sought to give the provinces a greater voice in the Senate.

Federal Proposal: House of the Federation

In 1978, Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau's government tabled a broad constitutional reform package with the aim of modernizing the nation’s constitutional framework (this package was officially referred to as the “Constitutional Amendment Bill” or Bill C-60). Included in the Bill was a proposal to transform the Senate into a new upper legislature called the “House of the Federation.” With this new Upper House, the federal government sought to promote the expression and discussion of regional interests in the federal legislative process, while continuing to protect the supremacy of the House of Commons in Canada’s Parliamentary system.

Highlights of the federal government’s proposal were as follows:

  • Selection of Members: Federal and provincial governments would both have been entitled to select members of the new Upper House, with the federal government appointing one-half of the members, and individual provinces appointing the remainder. Under this approach, Senators would have been selected by legislatures, and not directly elected by citizens. The House of Commons would have selected federal members, while individual provincial legislatures would have selected their provincial representatives.
  • Regional/Provincial Representation: Representation in the new House would have continued to be based on the four traditional Senate regions: Ontario, Quebec, Western Canada, and Atlantic Canada (the Maritimes-plus-Newfoundland). To some extent seat distribution, however, would have been reorganized to create greater provincial equality. Ontario and Quebec would remain at 24 seats each, while the number of seats in the Atlantic region would have been increased from 30 to 32 (with Newfoundland receiving both of the new seats). The Western Canada region would have been allocated 12 more seats (for a new total of 36), with British Columbia and Alberta receiving four more seats each, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba getting two more seats apiece. Each territory would continue to have only one seat in the new House.
  • Suspensive Veto for Ordinary Legislation: The new Upper House would have had only a “suspensive” veto, in which it could only delay the passage of federal legislation. If, for example, the new Upper House were to reject legislation that was previously passed by the House of Commons, the federal government would have the option, after 60 days, to bypass the Upper House altogether, and to present the legislation to the Governor General directly for immediate Royal Assent.
  • Other House Powers: The new Upper House would have had an absolute veto, in regard to legislation involving “special linguistic significance,” requiring a double majority of English-speaking and French-speaking members for approval. Approval of the new House would have also been required for senior government appointments (such as appointments to the Supreme Court of Canada, Crown Corporations, and key regulatory bodies). The government of the day, however, would not have been required to command the confidence of the House of the Federation to remain in power (as is the case with the House of Commons). The House of the Federation would also not be permitted to introduce money bills — legislation that explicitly involves the collection or disbursement of public funds.

(Source: Government of Canada, Constitutional Reform: House of the Federation, 1978)

Council-Type Senate Reform Proposals

In addition to the federal government’s House of the Federation, several other proposals for Senate reform were advanced during this period, many of which supported a council-type legislature modelled after the Bundesrat, the West German upper legislature. The earliest and clearest example of such a council-type proposal was the Government of British Columbia’s “Council of the Provinces,” first introduced in 1976. Other examples include Senate reform initiatives put forth by the Ontario Advisory Committee on Confederation (1978), the Quebec Wing of the Liberal Party of Canada (1978), the Constitutional Committee of the Canadian Bar Association (1978), the Canada West Foundation (1978), the Pepin-Roberts Task Force on Canadian Unity (1979), and the Government of Alberta (1982).

No attempt will be made here to discuss the details of each of these council-type initiatives individually. Instead, attention will be drawn to a few common and distinguishing features:

  • Function of the Upper House: Each of these council-type proposals would have given the new House the responsibility of providing provincial government oversight of federal legislation concerning regional interests.
  • Selecting Members: Membership in the new House would have consisted of instructed provincial delegates (in most cases, provincial cabinet ministers), whom would have been appointed by, and served at the pleasure of, their respective provincial governments (or, more precisely, their premiers and provincial cabinets).
  • Role of Members: Members in the new House would have not directly represented geographic constituencies (such as local districts or their provinces at large), but their respective provincial governments. Moreover, members would not vote as individuals in the new House, but as part of a provincial delegation empowered to cast only a single bloc vote. Such a vote would directly reflect the desires of the particular provincial government each delegation served.

It is also important to note that some of these council-type proposals advocated greater legislative powers for the Upper House than those proposed under the House of the Federation model. The Government of British Columbia’s Council of the Provinces, for example, would have given the new House an absolute veto over federal legislation that affected provincial jurisdictions. The federal government’s proposal, in contrast, would have only provided for a suspensive veto in the majority of cases, which could be bypassed by the House of Commons after a certain period of time.

Conclusions on Senate Reform in the 1970s

While the 1970s saw heightened attention to Senate reform, and a swath of reform proposals, no significant changes were made to the Senate during this period. This was due, in part, to a lack of consensus between the federal government and the provinces over the precise nature of reform. Moreover, Senate reform generally took a backseat to other ‘high priority’ constitutional issues, such as Quebec’s place in Canada, the development of a charter of rights, the institution of a new constitutional amending formula, and federal-provincial conflict over control of natural resources.

Nevertheless, it is important to note the general themes of Senate reform proposals expressed during this period. These reform proposals tended to focus strictly on the issue of regional grievances with federal-provincial relations and calls for greater provincial control over public policy and governance. Moreover, these proposals sought to redress this issue by giving the provinces greater voice in the Senate, and, in turn, in the federal legislative process. It is also important to underscore, however, that these Senate reform proposals differed very substantially in their specifics.

Democratic Legitimacy & the Triple-E Senate

Senate reform proposals in the 1980s

Beginning in the early 1980s, the debate on Senate reform shifted to include several new issues, in particular, democratic legitimacy and provincial equality. The first of these issues centred on the unelected nature of the Senate and the length of terms for Senators, who could serve until the age of 75. The argument advanced was that these specific elements undermined the legitimacy of the Senate in a society that valued political institutions that are accountable to citizens through democratic processes.

The second issue, provincial equality, focused on the provincial distribution of seats in the Senate, and whether this representation reflected the true status of individual provinces in the Canadian federation. This issue was particularly resonant in Western Canada, where it was often argued the Western provinces were unfairly underrepresented in the Senate, while Ontario and Quebec were overrepresented.

‘Triple-E’ Proposals: An Equal, Elected & Effective Senate

During the 1980s, a new approach to Senate reform, commonly referred to as the “Triple-E Senate,” began to receive public and scholarly attention. This approach to reform supports a Senate that is:

  • Equal: A reformed Senate should have greater equality in provincial representation, with a more equal distribution of Senate seats among provinces.
  • Elected: The Senate should be more democratic with members directly elected by citizens, rather than being appointed by the federal government.
  • Effective: The Senate should have effective legislative powers, which it could use to play a greater role in the federal legislative process.

In sum, a reformed Senate would be an equal, elected, and effective upper legislature; hence, the term “Triple-E Senate.” This approach to Senate reform was endorsed by several groups during the 1980s, in particular, the Canada West Foundation (1981) and the Alberta Select Special Committee on Upper House Reform (1985). The 1985 recommendations of the Alberta Select Special Committee also became the official position of the Government of Alberta (a position it re-endorsed in 2003).

Alberta’s Proposed Triple-E Senate

What precisely does a Triple-E Senate entail? This section provides highlights of one version of such an approach, the Alberta Select Special Committee’s 1985 proposal:

  • Selection of Members: Under this proposal, Senators would be directly elected through a system of plurality voting in multiple-member, province-wide constituencies. Under this system, each province would have a certain number of Senate seats. During senatorial elections, voters would select representatives from a list of candidates, and have as many votes as there were seats to be filled. The candidates with the largest number of votes would win (for example, if 10 seats needed to be filled, then the 10 candidates with the most votes would win a seat). Additionally, Senate terms would be fixed to provincial election cycles; senatorial elections for that province would be held at the same time as provincial elections. For more information on plurality voting in multiple-member constituencies: PR Library: Plurality/Majority Systems
  • Provincial Representation: The Alberta Select Committee advocated complete equality between provinces in the new Senate. Under this approach, each province would have received six Senate seats, with the Territories receiving two seats apiece.
  • Legislative Powers: In regard to ordinary legislation, constitutional amendments, and money or taxation bills, the Alberta Select Special Committee recommended giving the Senate a suspensive veto (90 days for money bills, 120 days for other types of legislation), meaning the House of Commons could override the Senate after these time periods. The new Senate would also have the power to ratify non-military international treaties. The Senate, however, would not be a “confidence” body (meaning the government would not have to maintain the support of a majority of Senators in order to stay in power), and would not have the power to initiate taxation or money bills.

(Source: Jack Stilborn, Senate Reform Proposals in Comparative Perspective, 1992)

Conclusions on Senate Reform in the 1980s

While the notion of the Triple-E Senate received heightened attention in the 1980s, no changes actually occurred during this period. This was due, in part, to constitutional fatigue stemming from the extensive negotiations that led to the modernization of the Constitution in 1982. Moreover, the notion of a Triple-E Senate received little support from the Liberal federal government in the early 1980s (although, the subsequent Progressive Conservative government was much more open to the idea).

Again, it is important to highlight some important themes in this period of Senate reform proposals. Most importantly, the Triple-E movement involved very different concerns than those of the 1970s. Whereas the House of Federation and Council-type models focused simply on giving the provinces a greater voice in the Upper House, the Triple-E movement emphasized the need to bring democratic legitimacy to the Senate, in addition to creating greater equality in provincial representation. The objective of the Triple-E proposals, then, was not simply to alter federal-provincial relations, but to alter the relationship between citizens and government, as well as between the provinces (inter-provincial relations).


Meech Lake, Charlottetown & Senate Reform

Senate reform proposals in the 1990s

During the late 1980s and early 1990s, the federal government, helmed by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, reopened the issue of constitutional reform in an effort to bring the province of Quebec into the constitutional fold (Quebec had officially rejected the constitutional changes of the early 1980s). This effort involved two rounds of constitutional negotiation, resulting in two failed agreements: the Meech Lake Accord and the Charlottetown Accord. While both of these accords focused primarily on Quebec’s place in Canada, they also included proposals for reforming the Senate.

Meech Lake Accord & Senate Reform

Negotiation of the Meech Lake Accord took place in the late 1980s, involving closed-door talks between the Prime Minister and provincial and territorial leaders. As far as Senate reform, the Meech Lake Accord would have maintained the federal government’s right to appoint Senators. It would, however, have secured greater provincial involvement by requiring the federal government choose a Senator from a list of nominees provided by the provincial and territorial governments. When appointing a Senator for Nova Scotia, for example, the Prime Minister would select from a list of nominees supplied by the Government of Nova Scotia.

These Senate reforms were never formally implemented, as the Meech Lake Accord failed to obtain the required consent of all provincial legislatures. Prime Minister Mulroney did, however, use his discretionary powers to appoint Stan Waters to the Senate in 1990. The Government of Alberta had recommended Waters following a province-wide senatorial election.

Subsequent Senate appointments, however, have reverted back to traditional practice, with the Prime Minister selecting appointees without any substantive provincial input. The Government of Alberta has continued to hold provincial elections for senatorial nominees, but the federal government has ignored the results of these elections when appointing Senators to represent Alberta.

Senate Reform in the Charlottetown Accord

The second attempt to bring Quebec into the constitutional fold, referred to as the Charlottetown Accord, took place in the early 1990s, and involved broad consultation between government leaders, interest groups, and the general public. Highlights of the Senate reform proposals advanced under the Charlottetown Accord are as follows:

  • Selection of Members: The Accord would have enabled provinces to choose between two methods of selecting Senators: a) direct elections by residents of the provinces, or b) appointment by provincial/territorial legislatures. In regard to the direct election method, the Accord did not specify the sort of electoral system that provinces would use to elect Senators.

  • Provincial Representation: The Accord would have also provided for provincial equality in the distribution of Senate seats, with each province receiving six seats each. The Territories would have been allocated one seat apiece.

  • Suspensive Veto for Ordinary Legislation: The new Senate would have enjoyed a suspensive veto over ordinary legislation. If used, this veto would then have triggered a joint sitting of the Senate and the House of Commons, with the vote outcome determined by a simple majority of both legislatures. The new Senate would also have had a suspensive veto over revenue and expenditure legislation (money bills), which the House of Commons (alone) could override after 30 days.

  • Other House Powers: The Accord would have provided the new Senate with an absolute veto (no House of Commons override) in cases of legislation affecting French language and culture. This veto would have required a double majority of both French-speaking and English-speaking members. Also, the Senate would have enjoyed the power to ratify federal appointments. It would not, however, have been a “confidence” body (meaning that the government would not have been required to maintain the support of a majority of Senators to stay in power). It also would not have had the power to initiate taxation or money bills.

(Source: Jack Stilborn, Senate Reform Proposals in Comparative Perspective, 1992)

For more information on the Charlottetown Accord:

Conclusions on Senate Reform in the 1990s

While the issue of Senate reform was formally reopened in the 1990s, no changes were made to the Senate during this period. This was due to the fact that both the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords failed to receive the support needed for amending the Constitution. The Meech Lake Accord failed to gain approval from the Manitoba and Newfoundland provincial legislatures (the Accord required the consent of all provincial legislatures, because it would have changed the Constitution’s amending formula, and modified the Supreme Court of Canada). The Charlottetown Accord was rejected in national and provincial referenda; a majority of Canadians in a majority of provinces, including a majority of Quebecers and on-reserve Aboriginals, voted against the Accord. It is important to underscore, however, that these two constitutional packages were rejected for a number of different reasons, not strictly because of their Senate reform components.

What are the major themes in this era of Senate reform proposals? The more limited Senate reform in the Meech Lake Accord reflected the 1970s concern of giving the provinces/territories a greater voice in the Upper House. Its reform proposals addressed the issue of federal government appointments, requiring the Government of Canada appoint Senators from a list of candidates provided by individual provinces.

In contrast, the more comprehensive reforms of the Charlottetown Accord centred squarely on the principles of the Triple-E Senate movement. It would have provided for the direct election of Senators by citizens (although, provinces could still appoint members if they so desired). Moreover, it would have created provincial equality in the new Upper House, with each province receiving the same number of seats. Finally, while limiting the Senate to a suspensive veto in most cases, the Accord would have made the Senate relatively effective in a number of ways. It would have, for example, provided for a joint sitting of both federal legislatures in order to override a Senate veto regarding non-money bills, provided for an absolute veto where federal legislation affected French language and culture, and given the Senate the power to approve federal appointments.


Non-constitutional Change & Senate Reform

2006 Conservative Senate reform proposal

Following the extensive and failed constitutional negotiations of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the issue of Senate reform receded from the public agenda. In 2006, however, it made a reappearance following the election of a new federal Conservative government.

Limited Terms & Non-Binding Elections

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.

Pursuit of Non-Constitutional Senate Reform

In introducing these reforms, the Harper government emphasized its desire to make changes to the Senate without engaging in lengthy and potentially divisive constitutional negotiations. The Harper government has suggested that it would be able to pursue these limited Senate reforms without requiring use of the Constitution’s general amending formulas, and without entering into negotiations with the provinces.

In this regard, it is useful to note that the Canadian Constitution provides for three different methods of amendment:

  • Unanimous Federal/Provincial Consent: Some changes to the Constitution require unanimous consent at both the federal and provincial levels of government. These include changes to the offices of the Monarchy and Governor General, the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada, and the constitutional amending formulas. For such constitutional changes to be approved, they must be consented to by the Governor General, the House of Commons, the Senate, and all provincial legislatures.

  • Majority Federal/Provincial Consent: Other changes to the Constitution require unanimous consent at the federal level, but only majority consent at the provincial level. They include changes pertaining to the method of electing members to the House of Commons, the powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators, provincial representation in the Senate, extending existing provincial borders into the territories, and the creation of new provinces. For these constitutional changes to be approved, they must be consented to by the Governor General, the House of Commons, the Senate, and at least two-thirds of the provinces representing more than 50 percent of the Canadian population.

  • Strictly Federal Consent: Finally, some changes to the Constitution only require unanimous consent at the federal level (provincial consent is not required). This includes changes to the executive government of Canada, the Senate, and the House of Commons (excluding those sorts of changes covered under the other two amending formulas). Such changes would only require the consent of the Governor General, the House of Commons, and the Senate.

The Harper government suggested its reforms would not require formal changes to the Constitution, or, in the worse case, would only trigger the last of these constitutional amending formulas. Hence, according to the Conservative government, there would be no need to formally change the Constitution, nor seek provincial consent, in order to implement this type of Senate reform. Several of the provinces, however have disagreed. In 2007, the governments of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, publicly stated that any change to the terms and selection of Senators would require provincial consent, and have requested Prime Minister Harper's government to consult with the provinces before making any changes to the Senate.
 
For more information on the Conservative government’s limited Senate reforms:

Conclusions on Recent Senate Reform Proposals

As of June 2007 , the Conservative government’s proposed Senate reforms had not yet been implemented. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize key themes in this set of Senate initiatives. While the scope of the reforms proposed is limited, they do reflect some of the basic principles associated with the Triple-E approach, articulated earlier in this article.

The Conservative government’s proposal seeks to make the Senate more democratically accountable by integrating direct elections into the selection process, as well as limiting the terms of Senators to eight years (as opposed to limiting terms by age, currently at 75 years).

Moreover, this set of proposals reflects a more practical issue in Senate reform – how to accomplish change within Canada’s existing constitutional and political framework. Past attempts at Senate reform were often included within broader constitutional initiatives (the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords being two examples). This made Senate reform much more complex to achieve, in the sense that they depended on federal and provincial agreement on other (often more contentious) constitutional issues, such as Quebec’s place in Canada. In contrast, the Conservative government seems to be attempting to bypass any constitutional wrangling by proposing limited reforms that would not require Constitutional amendment or, in the worst case, only require constitutional approval at the federal level (the House of Commons, the Senate, and the Governor General).

It is important to note, however, that the Conservative government can only go so far with this approach to Senate reform. If the Harper government wishes to address other principles contained in the Triple-E Senate approach, such as equality in provincial representation, such reforms would trigger the Constitution’s other amending formula. This would, in turn, require entering into negotiations with the provinces, as well as raising the possibility of opening other divisive constitutional issues.


Concluding Observations: Trends in Senate Reform Proposals

Shifts in approaches to Senate reform

The preceding sections provided an overview of Senate reform proposals between the 1970s and 2007. In examining these proposals overall, several trends are evident:

Many Proposals, But No Action

While Senate reform has received a significant level of public, academic, and government attention, very little has actually been accomplished. Reasons for this include periods of disagreement between the federal government and the provinces over the nature of Senate reform (particularly in the 1970s and 1980s), the perception that Senate reform was perhaps a lower priority relative to other constitutional issues (such as Quebec’s place in Canada); and, the attachment of Senate reform to larger constitutional packages that failed to receive government and public support.

Shifts in the Nature of Reform

Another important trend has been a shift in the nature of reform proposals. During the 1970s, reform proposals focused exclusively on giving the provinces a greater voice in the Senate (in particular, in choosing Senators). Beginning in the 1980s, however, other issues entered the debate, including democratic legitimacy and provincial equality. This is particularly clear in the Triple-E Senate movement, as well as reforms proposed under the Charlottetown Accord and by the Conservative government in 2006.

Current Period of Senate Reform

Finally, the issue of Senate reform is again receiving a high level of government and public attention. Moreover, current reform proposals seem to be focused on two primary issues: a) making the Senate more democratically legitimate, and b) finding an effective method to implement these reforms. The state of play, however, could shift again, depending on the electoral fortunes of the Conservative government.


Sources & Links for Further Information

List of article sources & links for more information on this topic

Sources Used for this Article

Book & Periodical Sources:
  • Government of Canada. Constitutional Reform: House of the Federation. Ottawa: 1978.
  • Smith, David. “The Improvement of the Senate by Non-constitutional Means.” Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Know. Ed. Serge Joyal. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2003.
Electronic Sources

Links for Further Information

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