You might think it’s hard to imagine any legislative chamber more dysfunctional than the US Senate, with its arcane rules, political polarization and virtual requirement that all legislation survive by a filibuster-proof majority.
But Canada’s upper-chamber Senate actually surpasses its American counterpart for ineffectiveness — and as Canadians begin to focus on the October general election, a scandal involving expenses that implicates prime minister Stephen Harper’s chief of staff and Harper’s belated push for Senate reform could play a pivotal role in the campaign.
Unlike U.S. senators, Canadian senators aren’t (typically) elected. Instead, they are appointed by the governor-general, the mostly ceremonial representative of Canada’s even more ceremonial head of state, Queen Elizabeth II. In practice, though, Senate appointments are made upon the prime minister’s recommendation, and he (or she) typically advances candidates on a political basis. Often, prime ministers appoint former MPs and party grandees who have actually lost elections, further emphasizing the undemocratic nature of the Senate.
The Senate’s 105 seats are allotted by province — but not in any way proportional to Canada’s population in the 21st century — Ontario and Québec have 24 each, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick 10 each and British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland each have six. Prince Edward Island, with a population of around 150,000, has four senators — that’s two-thirds the allotment for British Columbia, which is home to over 4.6 million Canadians. Senators essentially serve for life, though a 1965 reform instituted a mandatory retirement age of 75.
Senate approval is required to enact Canadian legislation. In practice, however, the upper chamber proves a far less contentious chamber than the U.S. Senate, functioning more like the British House of Lords. Bills almost exclusively originate in the lower chamber, the House of Commons. It’s usually a big deal when the Senate blocks legislation — its opposition to the 1988 free trade bill sparked a snap election over NAFTA, and in 2010, it rejected a bill (supported by every party except the Tories) that committed Canada to sharp reductions in carbon emissions by 2020. Generally, though, its activity is limited. Given that its members aren’t elected representatives, that’s probably a reasonable outcome.
Though Harper originally came to power in 2006 on promises to find a constitutional fix, he too eventually appointed his own senators — 59 of them — between 2009 and March 2013, three of which were elected in Alberta under an experimental scheme to elect their own senators. Continue reading Canada’s dysfunctional Senate becomes top campaign issue