02/15/2013 10:14 EST | Updated 02/15/2013 10:15 EST

Senate Poll Reveals Support For Reform And Harper's Western Weakness


Canadians have mixed views when it comes to the Senate, with large segments wanting the red chamber to be an elected body or abolished altogether. But there is one thing Canadians can agree upon -- they want it to change.

A new poll by Angus-Reid conducted earlier this week shows 67 per cent of Canadians support the idea of directly elected senators, with only 16 per cent opposed.

But the poll gives an indication of how opinions can change depending on how the question is put. When given a list of three opinions, the country was split between “Canada does not need a Senate, all legislation should be reviewed and authorized by the House of Commons” and “Canada needs a Senate, but Canadians should be allowed to take part in the process to choose senators.” Forty per cent chose the latter, 37 per cent the former.

Only 5 per cent agreed that “Canada needs a Senate, and the current guidelines that call for appointed senators should not be modified.”

The idea of electing senators is most popular in Alberta and British Columbia, while the thought of leaving matters entirely to the House of Commons resonates most in Quebec and Atlantic Canada. Oddly enough, the opposition to Senate reform from Quebec and Atlantic Canada is often cited as the main obstacle to constitutional change regarding the upper house.

There certainly seems to be appetite for reform among the population, even if it does not exist within the political class. An astonishing 73 per cent of Canadians support holding a referendum on the future of the Senate, with only nine per cent opposed. Such a vote could give the government the political capital needed to enact reform.

In addition to the wide support for elected senators, 66 per cent also support the idea of limiting appointed senators to eight-year terms.

But while opinion has not budged much on term limits or Senate elections over the past few years, support for abolishing the Senate entirely is trending upwards. At 36 per cent support, it is at its highest level since at least 2009. Opposition currently stands at only 31 per cent, with 33 per cent unsure.

Calling a referendum on Senate reform could be a good move for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who does have some work to do rebuilding his reputation on the issue, especially in the Conservative heartland in the west. According to the poll, 62 per cent of Canadians, including 42 per cent of Albertans and a majority of respondents from Saskatchewan and Manitoba, think Harper has been hypocritical for appointing senators "despite his long-standing opposition to the Senate in its current form."

Nevertheless, a minority of Canadians think they will elect senators within the current government’s mandate. Some 38 per cent expect to directly elect senators within the next five years (though Albertans already do), while 30 per cent expect it to happen in six years or more. Thirty-two per cent think it will never happen.

Despite their pessimism, Canadians do seem willing to tackle Senate reform in some form or another. But considering the slow pace the government has taken on the file and the obstacles to be overcome, their pessimism is likely warranted.

Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.

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