Canadian Senate Elections Summary

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Canadian Senate Elections

Summary: Should the Canadian Senate be elected?

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Author:Steven Kryger ( Canada ) Steven is a senior at Yale University, and the Director of Membership for the Yale Debate Association. Steven attended St. John’s-Ravenscourt School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada and was the Canadian High School Debate champion, along with the World Extemporaneous Speaking Champion. In college, he has reached elimination rounds at the North American Debate Championships and the World Debate Championships.

Created: Friday, June 12, 2009
Last Modified: Friday, June 12, 2009




Canada’s Parliament has two houses, the more powerful House of Commons, and the less powerful upper house, the Senate. There are a total of 105 Senators that make up the Senate, with each Senator representing a province and each province constitutionally entitled to a certain number of Senators. Senators are appointed by the Prime Minister. For a bill to become law, it must be passed by both the House of Commons and the Senate. However, by custom the Senate rarely votes down bills. Instead, its purpose is to provide “sober second thought”: to closely examine bills, and to recommend amendments and refinements to the government.

Many reforms to the Senate have been recently considering, including abolishing the Senate entirely, or simply changing the number of representatives per province. But the most prominent suggestion for reform is for Senators to be elected. The official position of the governing Conservative Party of Canada is that the Prime Minister should only appoint those Senators for whom the citizens of a province have voted. But in fact Prime Minister Stephen Harper has appointed both Senators who won a provincial vote and Senators who did not undergo a voting process.

This topic considers the specific Canadian debate on Senate reform, but it has wider relevance to the role of second chambers in democratic constitutions. In particular, many of the issues are similar to those in the UK, where a debate continues on the role and composition of the House of Lords (now largely appointed, although a hereditary element remains).





Canada prides itself on being a democracy in which the people – Canadian citizens – have the right to choose their representatives and the responsibility to ensure the protection and good governance of individuals and the nation. As an unelected body that nonetheless wields significant power, the Senate undermines Canada’s democracy and weakens the people’s power of self-governance.

Democracy is not the end goal of a political system. Rather, good governance and the protection of rights is the end goal. That is why Canada does not directly elect the Prime Minister; a Prime Minister chosen by the party with the most seats in Parliament leads to more efficiency, more accountability, and better governance. The Senate should not be elected for the sake of an election alone. Instead, only if governance would be improved should the Senate be elected.

An elected Senate is more accountable to the people. A Senator would be only be elected if she represents the views and values of the community, and if she strays, or is poor at her job, she can be defeated at the next election. Thus an elected Senator has an incentive to be hard-working, professional, and to seek to improve Canadian law and governance.

An elected Senate lowers the total accountability of the system. In the current system, all success and failure is attributed to the Prime Minister, and voters use that information to decide their votes in the next election. An elected Senate with an incentive to win re-election will introduce more laws, vote down more bills, and may not cooperate with the Prime Minister. The result is that Prime Minister can blame the Senate for poor governance and vice versa. Voters then have no clear party or individual to whom they can assign responsibility, and so the voters will be less able to hold the government accountable.

In the current system, where the Prime Minister with a majority government holds almost all power, there are few checks and balances that can stop the Prime Minister from passing bad legislation, overreaching, or governing poorly. The Senate, a watchdog of the Prime Minister, is appointed by the very person it has to watch. In an elected Senate, a different party might be in control, or at the very least the Senators have incentives to pass good legislation because they want to be re-elected. This means the elected Senate checks the Prime Minister and make sure the government is acting in the interests of Canada.

A Senate that is controlled by a different party or that blocks government legislation leads to two negative consequences. Firstly, bills would pass the Canadian Parliament more slowly and less efficiently. Secondly, the Prime Minister would have to compromise with the Senate on legislation. This means there is more behind the scenes deals, legislation may be less bold, and the elected Prime Minister has less of a chance to pursue the agenda and vision for which she has a democratic mandate.

The Senate’s role of sober second thought is largely without meaning, because by custom the Senate, as an unelected body, does not vote down legislation from the House of Commons. And so the House can ignore the Senate’s suggestions and force them to pass unwise legislation. An elected Senate with support from the people would have more authority to vote down legislation, and thus more ability to force the House to consider amendments to legislation.

The Senate’s traditional role of sober second thought would be undermined by elections. Suddenly, Senators will have to remain in the public eye, and pick positions that help them in become more popular in the short term, rather than positions that are in the long term interest of the Canadian people. An elected Senate would have less compromise and careful examination of issues, and more confrontation and short-sightedness.

The Senate is designed so that smaller provinces have a greater say, as compared to the House of Commons where Ontario alone holds more than a third of the seats and smaller provinces have much less influence. In order to ensure that the interests of smaller provinces are actually upheld, the Senate should be empowered – an electing the Senate, by giving Senators mandates from the people and independence from the Prime Minister, can better protect smaller provinces.

The current make-up of the Senate is a relic of a Constitutional compromise from years back that ignores the current realities of Canadian demographics. New Brunswick has four more Senators than British Columbia, even though British Columbia has about 3.5 million more citizens. In an elected Senate with more power, these distinctions matter even more. Either Canada could try to amend the Constitution to reapportion the seats, which would be divisive for the nation, or Canada could maintain the current assignment of seats, which is disproportionate, unfair, and alienates under-represented provinces.

In the current system, the Prime Minister can appoint her allies and friends to the Senate, instead of the best person for the job. This leads to Senators that are under-qualified, and loyal to the Prime Minister rather than the Canadian People.

The Senate allows the Prime Minister to place exceptional Canadians – academics, journalists, and leaders - into a position where they can advise the government and change policy. These individuals often do not want to go through the rigors of an election, perhaps because they are non-partisan, or because they wish to continue working in their specialist field while serving the nation part-time in the Senate. For this reason the appointment process is the best way to get qualified and intelligent Senators.

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