News from British and Canadian Conservatives

Friday, June 29, 2007

Canadian Senate - Labour's vision for the Lords

Canada's constitution is broadly modelled on the British Parliamentary system, and the two countries have a problem in common - what to do with the Upper House.

I've already blogged about the House of Lords and have started to outline the way I believe it should be reformed. The Canadian Senate suffers from many of the same problems. In fact, it appears that Labour have modelled the reformed House of Lords on the failed Canadian Senate.

The Senate is entirely appointed, with the Prime Minister of Canada responsible for making appointments (through the Governor General officially). Seats are allocated quite arbitrarily, with a vague geographical remit that displays little relation to either land area or population. In part, that's because the system was in 1867 and populations have shifted beyond recognition. It's almost like the pre-Reform British House of Commons although there are no provinces that would match up to the "Rotten Boroughs".

At present, Canada is arbitrarily divided into four divisions, which group together one or several provinces. Each region has 24 Senators. That means that Ontario and Quebec, which are Divisions and a Provinces, have 24 Senators each. The maritime provinces on the Atlantic East Coast share 24 Senators, as do the Western Provinces covering the Prairies and British Columbia. The three northern Territories have one Senator each. Within the Divisions, the way the seats are split between Provinces means that Alberta and BC have six Senators each, representing 495,801 and 651,290 people each according to the 2001 census. By contrast, tiny Prince Edward Island has 4 Senators, representing 33,824 people. The full figures (from Wikipedia) are here:

Province or Territory Number of Senators Population per Senator (2001 census)
Newfoundland and Labrador 6 85,488
Prince Edward Island 4 33,824
Nova Scotia 10 90,801
New Brunswick 10 72,950
Quebec 24 301,562
Ontario 24 475,419
Manitoba 6 186,597
Saskatchewan 6 163,156
Alberta 6 495,801
British Columbia 6 651,290
Nunavut 1 26,745
Northwest Territories 1 37,360
Yukon Territory 1 28,674

It's particularly notable that Alberta is considerably underrepresented and is also the power house of the Canadian economy.

Senators are appointed for life - with a mandatory retirement age of 75. That means that a Prime Minister's appointments can continue to excert undue influence over Parliament for decades after he (or she) has been voted out of office.

At present, the largest party in the elected House of Commons is the Conservative Party of Canada, yet the Liberals are able to dominate the Senate with their 62 of the 105 seats against just 23 Conservatives. Liberal Prime Ministers seem to have been reluctant to appoint opposition members to the Senate. The NDP and Quebecois, who are significant players in the Commons and various Provincial Assemblies, are pretty much ignored - only one "Independent NDP" has a seat in the Senate. The full composition is as follows: (source)

Liberal 62
Conservative 23
Progressive Conservative* 3
Independent NDP 1
Independent 5
Vacant 12

*refused to join Conservative Party of Canada when the PCs merged with the Canadian Alliance

The unsurprising demand that the Senate be reforemed has contributed to the large number of vacancies.

Alberta is a particularly good example of how the system. Not only is the province severely under represented with only 6 members, but none of them are Conservatives. That's despite the Conservatives holding every Alberta Riding in the House of Commons! Instead, Albertans are "represented" by 5 Liberals and one Progressive Conservative. That's due to change soon, with the retirement of a Liberal Senator who will be replaced by Bert Brown, a Conservative who was elected by the people of Alberta as their Senator in waiting in 1998 and again in 2004.

The Canadian experience is clear evidence that Labour's vision for the House of Lords as a primarily appointed body cannot work in a democracy. Canada is struggling against a potential constitutional crisis as the unelected Senate tries to overturn a manifesto pledge of the elected government. No matter what your views may be on the policy, that can't be right for democracy. It isn't right for Canada and it wouldn't be right for Britain.

So far, the proposals for reform are quite minor. Significant reforms would be very hard to achieve, as they would require a constitutional amendment. That needs the approval of the Provinces which is time consuming and could exacerbate the yawning divisions between Canadian Provinces which manifest themselves during each round of budget negotiations. Limiting Senators to serving 6 terms may just win approval, but it would be hard to redistribute the Senators more fairly, as it would require the over-represented Provinces to agree to reduce their Federal representations.

In short, Canada suffers from the same problem as Britain - years of tinkering with the Consitution has created a mess and it's hard to see the way out. I believe that the answer for both countries is to be bold; much bolder than any politician on either side of the Atlantic is currently prepared to be.


Toby Philpott said...


You seem to be making a point here without making a point. Would you agree with me that electing the House of Lords would be preferable to the current patronage situation?

I understand that there have been suggestions in Canada that the Senate be elected using STV as a voting method.

What would your views be on these suggestions?

Dan Hassett said...


This is the third instalment of my blogs on the Lords. I'll get to election eventually, but believe that it's important to ascertain the correct role for the Lords (and indeed the Senate) before deciding how to elect or appoint. I will go into greater detail soon.

I support an elected Lords and Senate. I don't think that members should be elected on a purely geographic basis - the Commons covers that.

STV has its place, but I'm not sure it would fit in with my plans for the Lords.

Ken Westmoreland said...

The NDP and Bloc Quebecois are not ignored, it's that they don't want the Senate to be abolished. For an all-Canada party like the NDP, that might be understandable, but for a separatist party like the Bloc, it's bizarre. If it doesn't want to be part of Canada at all, then why should it care about the constitutional arrangements of what would be another country?

Harper has threatened outright abolition of the Senate, which might be popular as it's so discredited, but it's less likely to happen without a fight than the abolition of New Zealand's appointed Legislative Council in 1950, which went almost unnoticed.

Let's call the upper house the Senate here. It's not republican or 'un-British' - Scotland has Senators of the College of Justice, while in Welsh the words for parliament and senate are the same senedd Northern Ireland had a Senate until 1972 (elected by its House of Commons, unfortunately) while the States of Jersey still has Senators, despite being a unicameral assembly.