Policy Options asked the Conservative Party of Canada for a statement on its intentions for the Senate. It did not respond. Following are recent public statements the Prime Minister and the Justice Minister have made about the Senate.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the Supreme Court decision
Kitchener, Ontario
April 25, 2014

The Supreme Court today essentially said that for any important Senate reform of any kind, as well as abolition, these are only decisions the provinces can take. We know that there is no consensus among the provinces on reform, no consensus on abolition, and no desire of anyone to reopen the Constitution and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations. So essentially this is a decision for the status quo, a status quo that is supported by virtually no Canadian. So look, I think that given that the Supreme Court has said we’re essentially stuck with the status quo for the time being and that significant reform and abolition are off the table, I think it’s a decision that I’m disappointed with but I think it’s a decision that the vast majority of Canadians will be very disappointed with, but obviously we will respect that decision.

Justice Minister Peter MacKay on the feasibility of Senate abolition
Halifax
July 24, 2015

There are ways that the Senate can reform itself, and certain practices that it can take. But I’m glad you asked the legal question, because contrary to what some, including Mr. Mulcair, have indicated…the abolition of the Senate, as you know, has been virtually prohibited by the Supreme Court of Canada in the Supreme Court reference that our government took to the Supreme Court for their views. What the Court has told us is that in order to take that step (which would be a drastic step) to completely remove that institution, we would require the compliance of the provinces and territories, in order to meet the constitutionality of that measure. My 18 years plus in politics, my experience in law, tells me that the likelihood of that happening is virtually zero. And so to come back to your question, what we are then left with is efforts to attempt to reform the institution as opposed to abolish it. Anybody suggesting that we can simply abolish it outright is not being honest with Canadians.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper on a Senate appointment moratorium
Regina
July 24, 2015

Reporter: Given that you met with Premier Wall today, I’d like to ask you about the Senate. Of course he’s a long-time advocate for abolishing it. Last year after the Supreme Court decision you said, “We know that there is no consensus among the provinces on reform, no consensus on abolition, and no desire of anyone to reopen the Constitution and have a bunch of constitutional negotiations,” going on to say, “significant reform and abolition are off the table.” There’s an election around the corner so I’m wondering if your position on reforming or abolishing the Senate has changed in any way since you said those words, and if not, what would it take.

Harper: Well, let me be very clear on what I have said repeatedly, all through my political career, and over the last several years as prime minister. I have said repeatedly over a very long time that the Senate must be reformed, and if it cannot be reformed, it should be abolished. The fact of the matter is, as you know, Canadians remain divided on whether they want to reform or abolish the Senate. On reform versus abolition the Supreme Court ruled, as you pointed out, that both reform and abolition would require unanimous approval of the provinces. So that’s the situation we’re in. What I take from this is the following: Canadians are not divided on their opposition to the status quo — that is, to an unelected, unaccountable Senate. The government is not going to take any actions going forward that would do anything to further entrench that unelected, unaccountable Senate. For the past two and a half years, since the Supreme Court decision and prior, I have not made any appointments to the Senate. There are now 22 vacant seats in the Senate. And let me be clear, it will be our policy to formalize that: we will have a moratorium on further Senate appointments. This has two advantages. The first, and obvious, advantage is that it saves cost. As we’ve been doing this, costs have been falling in the Senate. In fact, Senate expenses are now down some $6 million from what they were — it’s still a long way to go, but they have come down, and they are going to come down more. But the second advantage of this approach is I think it will force the provinces, over time, who as you know have been resistant to many reforms in most cases, to either come up with a plan of comprehensive reform, or to conclude that the only way to deal with the status quo is abolition. So that is the path we’re going to take: a moratorium on future appointments of senators.

Additional comments by Harper from the Regina news conference:

  •  We have 22 vacancies now and how many people are noticing? What are the problems this is creating? None.
  • Let me be kind of blunt about this: The number of vacancies in the Senate will continue to rise, and other than some voices in the Senate, and some people who want to be appointed to the Senate, no one’s going to complain.
  • The ball’s in [the provinces’] court. They can now propose reforms. In the meantime, the membership in the Senate is going to continue to shrink, and Canadians are going to ask the question: “If you don’t have a program for reform, and we’re not missing the senators, why not just abolish it?”