Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

The Canadian Senate: Legitimacy is the Issue

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While Prime Minister Stephen Harper was conducting a Latin American tour last week, a firestorm was in full force concerning questionable expenses of prominent Conservative senators Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin.  Before Harper actually left for Latin America, his respected chief of staff, Nigel Wright, had already resigned from his post after making the decision to give Senator Duffy $90,000 to pay a portion of his debt to the Canadian public.

Meanwhile, the official opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) called for the outright abolition of the Senate—an appointed upper chamber of the Canadian Parliament.  This has been the traditional position of the NDP for years. Prime Minister Harper has long been a strong proponent of major senate reform both during his opposition years and now.  His approach revolves around the concept of a “Triple E Senate”—elected, equal and effective. The third Canadian parliamentary party, the Liberal party, having benefited for many years from dominating the Senate, has been far more ambiguous about its vision.  Currently, legal issues regarding senate reform have been referred to the Canadian Supreme Court for a ruling.

The original intent of the Senate was to provide “sober second thought” on legislation emanating from the lower House—the House of Commons. In addition, the Senate was meant to play a role in defending provincial responsibilities and interests.  The Federal Cabinet nominates senators. Over the years, the Senate has comprised a mix of party officials being rewarded for past services and prominent citizens called to another form of civic engagement.

To most Canadians, the Senate is not a major force or concern regarding how the nation conducts its business. So, abolition? Reform? Perhaps we need to start with the question:  Is it still a legitimate body in today’s modern parliamentary system?Clearly, an appointed body with jurisdiction over laws passed by our elected body sounds like an anachronism in 2013.  From afar, for instance, the appointed House of Lords in Britain seems somewhat ceremonial and symbolic.  The action is really in the House of Commons.

In the United States, the Senate was originally appointed, but has been elected since a constitutional amendment in 1913.  With the U.S. concept of the separation of powers, the Senate has become a major player in the American system of government over the years.  Senators such as John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama have made it to the presidency from this office.  Others such as John McCain, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and Robert Kennedy were considered serious candidates for the highest office in the land.

The situation in Canada is different. We do not have a separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of government in the U.S. sense.  The federal government names the senators but they have traditionally had a secondary role in legislation and the elected House of Commons is without question the preponderant authority in producing legislation. The Canadian provinces have also played an increasing role in defending and promoting provincial jurisdictions and interests. With the Council of Federation (ten provinces and three territories) now in place, leaders of the provinces and territories have been more active and more powerful in the management of the Canadian federation.  Senators barely make news, unless it is controversial.

In my personal experience in the Québec government, I have had mixed feelings about the Canadian Senate. Some of its members have contributed positively and constructively to the public debate. The “notion of sober thought” has produced some important modifications to legislation from the House of Commons. Overall, the Senate has not been irrelevant to the evolution of Canadian parliamentary democracy.  Despite this, the recent behavior of some prominent senators has called into question the very existence of the upper body.  In this era of social media and more direct democracy, the future of the Senate will be determined more by whether it still has a legitimate role to play in modern parliamentary democracy.


John Parisella is the former Québec delegate general in New York and currently a visiting professor at the University of Montréal’s International Relations Center. He is also a Member of the Board of Directors of The Montreal Council on Foreign Relations.

Tags: Canada, Canadian government, Canadian Senate
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