What to do about the Senate?

The Canadian Senate

As was mentioned in class last week, there has been much discussion in Ottawa (and across the country) about the state of affairs in Canada’s Senate to the point that this week the NDP has tabled a bill which proposes abolishing the Red Chamber altogether.

But before we get to all of that, a little background (courtesy of Wikipedia):

The Senate of Canada (French: Sénat du Canada) is a component of the Parliament of Canada, along with the House of Commons, and the monarch (represented by the governor general). The Senate is modelled after the House of Lords and consists of 105 members appointed by the governor general on the advice of the prime minister. Seats are assigned on a regional basis, with each of the four major regions receiving 24 seats, and the remainder of the available seats being assigned to smaller regions. The four major regions are Ontario, Quebec, the Maritime provinces, and the Western provinces. The seats for Newfoundland and Labrador, the Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut are assigned apart from these regional divisions. Senators may serve until they reach the age of 75.

The Senate is the upper house of Parliament, and the House of Commons is the lower house. This does not, however, imply that the Senate is more powerful than the House of Commons, merely that its members and officers outrank the members and officers of the House of Commons in the order of precedence for the purposes of protocol. Indeed, as a matter of practice and custom, the Commons is by far the dominant chamber. Although the approval of both houses is necessary for legislation, the Senate rarely rejects bills passed by the directly elected Commons. Moreover, the government is responsible solely to the House of Commons; the Prime Minister of Canada and Cabinet stay in office only while they retain the confidence of the Commons. The Senate does not exercise any such control. Although legislation can normally be introduced in either house, the majority of government bills originate in the House of Commons. Under the Constitution, money bills must always originate in the House of Commons.

So what to make of the discussion of the Senate in recent weeks? (See the links below to get a clearer picture of the situation.) 

Despite Senate reform being part of Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party platform during their minority governments, the recent controversy began surrounding several Senators’ places of residence, and whether they were eligible to claim travel benefits and living expenses from the government (one of these Senators, Conservative appointee Patrick Brazeau, was also arrested for assault related to a domestic disturbance in one of his homes).

Suffice it to say that the above flurry of relevant current events has sparked much legal debate about how Senators’ expense reports are documented and overseen by the Parliamentary Budget Officer (who the Toronto Star recently hailed as a “National Hero“), and even prompted the Senate to seek out a way to have Kevin Page drop his legal challenge against the federal government for failing to disclose its data.

BC has introduced in its own legislature a bill to elect its own Senators, following reforms in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and Conservatives in the House of Commons await advice from the Supreme Court as to whether Stephen Harper can begin reforming the Senate without approval from the provinces.

Not only that, in a bold play that some of the linked headlines might make slightly more feasible, the NDP has tabled bills in the House of Commons that – among other things – propose “immediate steps towards abolishing” the upper chamber.

It is indeed an exciting time to be engaged with our Federal politics, as these to gentlemen may agree:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBycHDhNxuk]

Further Reading:

Quebec’s Senate appeal proceeds ahead of Supreme Court case

House votes to keep Senate