The Canadian Senate could be a force for good. It could actually be the “sober second thought” that John A. MacDonald said they were.
But for the most part, the Senate is a living rubber stamp.
Based on the British House of Lords, it’s made up of 105 people appointed by the Governor General with advice from the Prime Minister. Each province and territory gets a number of Senators based on that region’s population.
So basically, the sitting Prime Minister can give senate jobs to their cronies and anyone who has done them political favours.
Up until 1967, senators were appointed for life. Now they have to retire at 75. And what do they do? Well, not much.
Nice work if you can get it, right?
For a Canadian bill to pass and become law, it needs approval from both the House of Commons (our MPs) and the Senate (political appointees). That means, technically, the Senate can prevent a bill from becoming law even after it’s been approved by the House of Commons. That’s where John A’s whole “sober second thought” thing came from.
But since 1867, the year Canada was created, the Senate has rejected 43 bills.
That’s one rejected bill every four years, on average. The rest of the time, senators snooze in their chairs and wake up to rubber-stamp legislation.
Some of them don’t even show up. In 1998, senator Andrew Thompson got in trouble for never coming to work. At that point, he’d been a senator for 30 years. But for the last 10, he barely appeared. He spent so much time in Mexico that his colleagues called him “the Siesta Senator.”
Since the 1970s, there have been nearly 30 proposals to reform the Senate. Lots of these proposals said senators should be elected like our MPs. But all of them failed.
But here’s what really burns. In 2022, the starting salary of a Senator is $164,500. They get extra pay if they take on extra roles. And they get money to cover expenses.
Lots of senators have played fast and loose when it comes to expenses. In a 2016 report, the Auditor General of Canada identified 30 senators (nearly a third of the Senate) who made inappropriate expense claims. That report kicked off the great Senate expense scandal of 2016.
In a time when regular folks are watching gas and groceries eat up their pay cheques, that salary and expense account look pretty rich indeed.
It would take a lot of work to overhaul the Senate. It’s baked into our constitution. And opening the constitution is nasty business (does anyone remember the Meech Lake Accord?).
Maybe someday we’ll open that Pandora’s Box.
But until then, you know what Senators could do? They could have some basic decency and do the jobs they’ve been appointed to do.
Prime Ministers appoint senators. That means the Senate can end up just as partisan as our House of Commons. But a Senate made up of people who aren’t tied to a political party could help buffer the changing political winds.
The Independent Senate Group is trying to work on that.
And the Senate has some cool features. When it comes to men and women, it’s about half and half. There are 10 Indigenous senators. And there’s a group of senators who advocate for Black voices.
Do these groups fix all of the Senate’s problems? No. But they’re a start.
Now we just need all of the senators to show up and do their jobs. Because if any of us went to Mexico instead of coming to work, we know what would happen.