This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2012

Elect them all

David Weisz

Remember When Stephen Harper promised to reform the senate? More than five years later, that promise is a mess


Stephen Harper’s ire towards the unelected Canadian Senate is longstanding and well-documented. A statement on his 2004 campaign website read, “Stephen Harper will cease patronage appointments to the Senate. Only candidates elected by the people will be named to the Upper House.” Since becoming prime minister, he has appointed 51 senators.

The latest incarnation of Harper’s mission (his fifth legislative attempt) is the Senate Reform Act. If passed, it would have senators nominated through provincial elections, axe the mandatory age 75 retirement, and limit the plum $132,300-a-year gig to a nine-year term—at least, in theory. Everything is voluntary: The act can’t force the prime minister to respect election results and provinces can opt out of the election process entirely.

Certainly, senate reform is a divisive issue amongst the provinces: Alberta has already elected two senators; Saskatchewan has legislation that allows for senate elections; Ontario wants the senate eliminated; and Quebec has pledged to fight senate reform tooth and nail. While Canadians may relish the idea of having more direct control over elected officials, Nelson Wiseman, an associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto, says that it’s an ill-conceived notion for the senate. This is especially true, he adds, when it comes to reforming what is meant to be a house of second sober thought rather than a roadblock to the passage of legislation.

As it stands, Wiseman says, the Red Chamber is loath to butt heads directly with the Lower Houses. They lack the political clout of democratically elected MPs. Look at it this way: if you were essentially paid $132,300 per year to show up (or in the case of Harper-appointee Patrick Brazeau, make disparaging Twitter remarks when called out for a shoddy attendance record), would you want to stir the pot by derailing legislature put forward by elected officials? Whether the current senate reform push can fix such lethargy, however, is up for debate.

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