House of Lords Library

Canadian Senate Reform: Recent Developments

Published Tuesday, September 13, 2016

This House of Lords Library briefing provides an overview of recent developments in the Canadian Senate appointments process and highlights the work of a special Canadian Senate Committee on Senate modernisation, which has taken evidence on the experience of the House of Lords from individuals including Lord Hope of Craighead, Convenor of the Crossbench Peers.

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The Senate of Canada is the second chamber of the country’s Westminster-style bicameral Parliament. Its members are appointed by the Governor General, representing the Queen of Canada (Elizabeth II), on the advice of the Prime Minister. The duties of the Senate include examining and revising legislation; investigating national issues through committee work; and representing regional, provincial and minority interests. Historically, appointments to the Senate of Canada have invariably been made on a party-political basis, with prime ministers rarely appointing senators from other parties or independents.

In October 2015, the Liberal Party of Canada won a majority in Canada’s House of Commons following federal elections. As part of its policy platform published ahead of the election and in line with a position earlier outlined by Leader Justin Trudeau, the Liberal Party undertook to create a new, merit-based process to advise the Prime Minister on Senate appointments should the party win a majority in the election and form the next government. The objective of this policy was to encourage a more independent Senate comprising fewer senators with political affiliations.

Once in office, the new Liberal Government initiated the implementation of this policy with the creation of an Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments. The Board has completed the first, transitional phase of its work, which involved recommending individuals to Prime Minister Trudeau for appointment to fill seven vacancies in the Senate. In March 2016—as a result of this process—the Prime Minister announced the appointment of seven independent senators, all of whom had been recommended by the Advisory Board. As part of the second, permanent phase, the Board is now considering applications from Canadian citizens for 20 existing vacancies. The Canadian Government expects to fill all current vacancies by the end of 2016.

Canadian politicians and commentators have argued that the merit-based appointment of independent senators will change the character of the Senate. It will also mean that the Government will not have a majority—either political or absolute—in the second chamber, which may have implications for the carrying or passing of its legislative programme. Examples of contrasting opinion on the changes are included in a further reading list.

The briefing follows a previous House of Lords Library briefing on the subject of bicameral legislatures worldwide, entitled Second Chambers (10 March 2014).

Lords Library notes LLN-2016-0046

Author: Thomas Brown

Topics: Constitution, International politics and government, North America, Parliament

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House of Lords Library

The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.