The renewed Canadian Senate: organizational challenges and relations with the government

Parliament Parliamentary scrutiny Upper houses Canada

The Senate of Canada’s relationship with the government and its functioning have evolved considerably since 2015, when the Liberal government announced it would implement a new “non-partisan, merit-based” process for Senate nominations. With the elimination of patronage as a key criterion for appointment, senators in the Independent Senators Group (ISG) are now a majority of the Senate’s members (58 of 105 seats as of May 2019). In the process, the Senate has become more independent.

In contrast to concerns expressed by some critics of the reforms, Emmett Macfarlane’s assessment is that the Senate has navigated the changes successfully. It has not attempted to block legislation outright or engage the House of Commons in repeated “ping-pong” of bills. Although there has been a notable increase in the number of amendments proposed, the Senate has routinely bowed to the wishes of the House (and the government) in either accepting or rejecting amendments.

However, there are clear signs that a more independent Senate has made the legislative process more challenging and complex for the government. One of the most significant challenges the government has had in getting its legislative agenda through the second chamber has been organizational: with the majority of senators no longer in a party caucus, the benefits of getting large groups of senators “on the same page” have been lost. Government ministers quickly learned that they need to work harder on certain bills in order to ascertain and respond to senators’ concerns, and gain their support. Public servants have also had to alter their work in some instances — for example, by providing a greater number of technical briefings to smaller groups of senators, a reflection of the range of opinions within the ISG. Finally, the Office of the Government Representative in the Senate (a new position, created in 2016) has played an important role in shepherding legislation through the second chamber, and negotiating timelines and votes.

Macfarlane concludes that some of the so-called difficulties may be a feature of the changes to the Senate, not a bug. A more independent Senate — one that is more responsive and active — will inevitably create more work for the government and add to the complexity of the legislative process. No longer negatively implicated as a patronage or even partisan institution, the Senate may witness a renewed legitimacy. It nonetheless remains in a period of transition, and future rule changes may be necessary to cement its evolution.

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IRPP Study no.71