07/20/2011 12:09 EDT | Updated 09/19/2011 05:12 EDT

Stephen Harper and the Perils of Senate Reform

There is good reason why most prime ministers avoid Senate reform: it is contentious and divisive. A reformed Senate could provide a check on the Prime Minister's Office, though there is also the potential for gridlock with feuding houses, something seen in the United States system of divided government.

The Canadian Senate, an appointed body, has been considered a symptom of a self-serving Ottawa political establishment, representing privilege and patronage. This has made the Senate an easy target for so-called "anti-establishment parties" -- that is, parties other than the Liberals and former Progressive Conservatives who historically alternated power at 24 Sussex Drive.

The NDP's longstanding position is that the Senate should be abolished. For the Reform/Alliance, their position was to reform the Senate to be an effective and elected body providing representation to a Western Canada which felt overlooked by Ottawa. Stephen Harper, coming from the Reform/Alliance tradition, has thus favoured Senate reform towards something more democratic.

Senate reform, though, is not necessarily that radical. The provinces long ago abolished their upper chambers. In the Commonwealth, New Zealand abolished its Senate and Australia established an elected upper house. However, in Canada there has been inertia on Senate reform. Proposals for reform date back to 1874; yet, to date, little has been done (the age 75 mandatory retirement being a notable exception).

There is good reason why most prime ministers avoid Senate reform, it is contentious and divisive. Substantive Senate reform requires a constitutional amendment, and this requires the consent of seven out of 10 provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the Canadian population.

However, to reach this kind of consensus is difficult, not to mention the divisive process it would involve. In the Atlantic provinces, which benefit in representation from the current allocation of Senate seats, there would, in some cases, be apprehension about any Senate reform that would diminish this representation.

In Quebec there is the issue of distinct society, and how the composition or mission of the Senate should reflect that. In populous Ontario, which holds more than one-third of the seats in the House of Commons, there is apprehension of a more powerful Senate which, with regional-based representation, could potentially diminish the province's influence in Ottawa.

Then there is the question of how many Senate seats each province should be allocated. Should each province get the same number of seats, as with the U.S. Senate? Would Ontario's government be happy having the same number of seats as Prince Edward Island?

Also, the "West wants in" (wants to be properly represented in Ottawa) is a longstanding refrain, but on seat allocation, would British Columbia and Alberta -- which are more populous than Manitoba and Saskatchewan -- want more seats? With more House of Commons seats going to British Columbia and Alberta, could they soon share Ontario's concerns about diminished representation in a regional-based Senate?

In addition to regional issues, there are ideological issues. Provinces with NDP governments would favour Senate abolition while provinces with Harper-friendly conservative governments would be more open to an elected Senate.

Stephen Harper's proposals for Senate reform are relatively modest as he wants to avoid the kind of substantial changes that would require a constitutional amendment -- his proposal includes limiting Senate terms to eight years (nine years now, seemingly as a compromise) and allowing provinces to hold Senate elections with the prime minister appointing a senator based on the provincial election.

However, there is uncertainty about whether Harper's proposals require a constitutional amendment, which has led the government of Quebec to threaten a court challenge. Add to this the fact that even Conservative Senators -- including ones appointed by Harper -- have been less than enthusiastic about term limits.

So, even with Harper trying to bypass constitutional amendment, it is still messy. Though what about the merits of Senate reform in and of itself? The Senate, currently, is a chamber of sober second thought, reviewing legislation -- positive functions. Also, the composition of the Senate includes some highly-accomplished individuals.

What are the benefits of an elected and more effective Senate? Given the power of the Prime Ministers' Office (PMO) -- and tightness of party discipline in the House of Commons -- a reformed Senate could provide a check on the PMO (especially if it continues to be a body that the government does not need to win a confidence vote in order to stay in power). Also, maybe Senators might be less subjected to party discipline, be more able to speak their minds and represent their constituents.

Though there is also the potential for gridlock with feuding houses, something seen in the United States system of divided government. This is a downside that Stéphane Dion warned about in a column for the Edmonton Journal.

For Harper, a very partisan figure, Senate reform is an issue that can allow him to rise above partisanship and ideology -- much like the Charter and repatriation of the Constitution did for Trudeau. However, Senate reform is a difficult process, one that can offer a positive legacy but just as likely (or more likely) offer great disappointment and embarrassment to the prime minister.

Hassan Arif is a columnist with the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick. He is a PhD candidate in urban sociology at the University of New Brunswick and has a background in law and political science. He can be reached at

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Telegraph Journal.