Is the British House of Lords model viable for Canada’s Senate?

In today’s Globe and Mail, former Clerk of the Privy Council Mel Cappe makes a spirited defence of the appointed Senate.

He argues that the Senate is a more thoughtful legislature than the House of Commons reviewing issues in more detail.  It goes beyond partisan wrangling that chokes off serious policy debate and development in the House of Commons.

“It is difficult to find a powerful, successful, free democratic constitution of a great sovereign state which has adopted the single Chamber government.” – Sir Winston Churchill

Cappe writes about the kinds of people who were appointed to the Senate, writing in the past tense as if many of those appointed now don’t fit with the description.

He writes, “the people appointed to the Senate were not usually professional politicians. They had actually done something with their lives. They were small business people, senior managers in big business, heads of NGOs or professionals with real-world experience. They were the kind of people who wanted to make a difference and contribute to Canada, without subjecting themselves to the contact sport of elected politics. How to attract such people to public life without making them run for office? Appoint them.”

He unabashedly supports appointment arguing that “an elected Senate competing for political place with the electorate would undermine the role of the Commons. It is the Commons that has to constrain the Crown.”

He goes on to recommend a review of the British House of Lords model for Canada “where the appointment process has been reformed with a commission examining the quality of appointments. And in the House of Lords debates, the so-called people’s peers came from walks of life that nourished and informed the public debate.”

Cappe raises a lot of interesting points worthy of consideration.

So let’s look at the British House of Lords…

There are currently 755 members of the British House of Lords

The upper chamber in the British Parliament has no fixed membership and currently has 755 members (yes, 755 members!).  It is made up of mainly appointed peers along with no more than 26 “Lords Spiritual” representing the Anglican Church and 92 hereditary peers.

Appointment to the House of Lords is not based on region (like in Canada) and by convention the Prime Minister allows other party leaders to recommend appointments to keep the partisan balance in the Chamber.  An independent commission also makes recommendations for appointments for non-partisan peers.

The current composition of the House of Lords includes:

  • Conservative – 210
  • Labour – 217
  • Liberal Democrat – 89
  • Other parties – 13
  • Crossbenchers (publicly non-partisan) – 180
  • Non-affiliated – 21
  • Lords Spiritual – 25

Interestingly, members of the House of Lords receive no annual salary but their expenses related to their duties are paid for.

Would the House of Lords Model Work in Canada?

The Canadian Senate was originally designed to be a check on the excesses of the House of Commons and to protect regional interests.

As the Library of Parliament notes,

“Of approximately 50 bicameral legislatures in the world, Canada’s was designed to serve the distinct needs of this unique federation. The preamble of the Constitution Act 1867 sets out the decision of the federating provinces to adopt a constitution “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom.” Thus our two Houses of Parliament were patterned after those of Britain, with two intentional exceptions only: as a young country without an aristocracy, Canada’s upper chamber could not be occupied by hereditary peers, but rather would house mature men (and, some time later, women) of diverse experience summoned by the Governor General on the recommendation of the Prime Minister; and secondly, the principal geographic regions of Canada would be represented equally. In the Commonwealth tradition, the Senate would primarily play a revising role, although its power was that of absolute veto. The lower chamber would be elected on the principle of representation by population.”

Regional equality in the Senate was a key part of the Confederation deal. It’s pretty much a deal breaker now.

It was part of the original bargain that brought the Maritime provinces and Quebec into Confederation.  It would ensure that the more populous regions (Ontario and Quebec) of the country couldn’t impose their will on the less populous Maritime provinces, and that the linguistic and religious minority interests (French and Catholic) would be protected with Quebec’s representation in the Senate.  The same principle held when Manitoba, BC, and Alberta and Saskatchewan joined Confederation later.

So regional representation is fundamental to the Senate’s original purpose and that is very different from the House of Lords.

But there are some features that could be imported from the British House of Lords.

  1. No salaries for Senators –  Senators should be appointed because of their expertise, experience, and service to Canada.  There should be no salary attached to the position.  That will encourage only those who want to serve the public from accepting a nomination and putting their name forward.
  2. Increase the number of Senators – Decreasing costs by eliminating salaries and decreasing staff will allow for more Senators.  There are currently 105 Senators but why not increase that to 200 or 300?  More Senators will dilute the influence of individual members and allow for more diversity and less partisanship.  The job wouldn’t be full time so members could sit on one committee and become policy experts on particular issues.  Also, we could get around the length of appointment since the number of Senators will be greater and we wouldn’t have the bulk of members sitting in the chamber for decades.  A major challenge with this proposal is that it would require an amendment to the Constitution.
  3. Independent Appointment Commission – This is a good idea but one that won’t likely happen.  Why would a sitting Prime Minister and his political party give up the power of appointing partisans into a legislature that has the power to stall or even block legislation coming out of the House of Commons?  Perhaps with enough public pressure such a body could be created but I don’t think the incentives are there for this to happen.

Rational Choice and Institutional Reform

The challenge with any institutional reform is the political incentives for change have to be clear and not hurt the party in power.

Since the Senate has almost as much power as the House of Commons to amend, stall, introduce, or block legislation (except for money bills), why would a governing party give up the ability to appoint individuals that will support its agenda and mandate?

The suggestions above don’t resolve the long standing regional questions – particularly as they pertain to Western Canada.  Some agreement would have to be made that would increase representation for Western Canadian provinces while maintaining higher than proportional representation for Atlantic Canada.

The same self-interest that would discourage a Prime Minister from giving up his/her prerogative over appointments would likely discourage provincial governments in Atlantic Canada, Quebec, and Ontario from supporting a decreasing in their proportional representation in the Senate.

I think the Senate can play a useful role.  I personally support many options for reform including election and abolition.  I think the current structure is outdated and not beneficial to the political and policy process.  But getting to a consensus will likely be impossible.

Looking to Britain and the longstanding debate it has had about its upper chamber could give us some insight into what we can do.

The least we can do is eliminate salaries, make Senators part-time positions, and increase the number of them.

If we can’t agree on how Senators get into the chamber, the least we can do is put the right people there, dilute the influence that each of them has on the political process, and take the financial incentives away from the appointment.

What do you think?

David Coletto is CEO of Abacus Data and leads its Public Affairs research practice. He has a PhD from the University of Calgary and is an adjunct professor at Carleton University.  He’s an avid road cyclist.

Contact David Coletto:

T: 613-232-2806 x. 248



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