Academic journal article IRPP Study

The Renewed Canadian Senate: Organizational Challenges and Relations with the Government

Academic journal article IRPP Study

The Renewed Canadian Senate: Organizational Challenges and Relations with the Government

Article excerpt


During the 2015 federal election campaign, the Liberal Party under Justin Trudeau promised a new "nonpartisan, merit-based" appointments process for the Senate of Canada. Once the Liberals formed government, an independent advisory committee was established to submit names to the Prime Minister for consideration. Modelled on existing judicial appointment advisory committees and the short-lived Advisory Committee on Vice-Regal Appointments, the Senate appointments body, the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments, is composed of at least five members: three permanent federal members and two members from each province or territory where a vacancy is to be filled (Office of the Prime Minister of Canada 2016).1 A key part of the reform was to eliminate patronage as a criterion for appointment, to reduce partisanship and to increase the independence of the Senate. Senators in the Independent Senators Group (ISG) now form a majority of the Senate's membership (58 of 105 seats as of May 2019).

This study investigates how the Senate's functioning has evolved since 2015, with specific attention to the relationship between the government and the second chamber. It finds that, contrary to the concerns expressed by some critics, the Senate has successfully navigated the changes to its composition. Although there are clear signs that a more independent Senate has made the legislative process more challenging and complex from the government's perspective, it has not been unduly obstructionist. By obstructionist, I mean that the Senate has not attempted to block legislation outright or engage in repeated "ping-pong" of specific bills with the House of Commons. While there has been a notable increase in amendment activity, the Senate has routinely bowed to the wishes of the House in either accepting or rejecting amendments.

One of the most significant challenges relating to getting the government's legislative agenda through the second chamber has been organizational: with the majority of senators no longer in a formal party caucus, the institutional benefits of getting large groups of senators "on the same page" have been lost. Government ministers quickly learned that they needed to work harder to ascertain, keep track of and gain senatorial support for certain bills. Public servants have also had to work harder in some instances, providing more technical briefings to smaller groups of senators, reflecting the disparate range of opinions and lack of the information flows that previously existed within parties. Finally, the role of the Office of the Government Representative in the Senate has been important for shepherding legislation through the Senate and efficiently negotiating timelines and votes.

The study begins with a brief examination of criticisms of the reform, and critics' concerns about a renewed Senate's potential for activism and dysfunction. It then assesses the Senate's general performance in this vein by examining its record thus far. The progression of two controversial bills is then explored from the perspective of key players in order to provide a snapshot of some of the legislative challenges faced by the renewed second chamber. The bulk of the study then analyzes the evolution of the Senate's organization and the challenges it and the government have faced as the number of independent senators has grown. The study concludes with an assessment of existing challenges and the prospects for the role of a renewed Senate in the future.

The analysis that follows draws on 10 interviews conducted from August 2018 to March 2019 with the following: Senator Peter Harder, Government Representative in the Senate; Senator Yuen Pau Woo, Facilitator of the Independent Senators Group; Senator Joseph A. Day, Senate Liberal Leader; Senator Yonah Martin, Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; a senior staff member in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate; and five not-for-attribution interviews with senior public servants in federal government departments and central agencies. …

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