Skip to main content

The thrones in the Senate Chamber are seen through the main entrance on Parliament Hill Wednesday May 22, 2013 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Opinions about what should be done with the Senate have shifted back and forth for decades, but polls suggest Canadians are becoming less and less accepting of the current process for nominating senators. Support for abolishing the Senate is creeping upwards, and the recent scandals seem unlikely to reverse the trend.

The debate over what to do about the Senate is hardly a new one, and its persistence as an unelected body is a testament to the obstacles blocking any real reform. The Senate was a hot topic of debate during the 1980s in Western Canada, and the constitutional negotiations that led to Meech Lake and Charlottetown put the debate front and centre throughout that period.

In the 1950s, Canadians liked the Senate

But the issue goes back much further than that. The question of what to do about the Senate was asked in a Gallup poll as early as 1953. In that survey, 70 per cent of respondents said that the Senate was doing its job satisfactorily. Of the 30 per cent who disagreed, only 46 per cent thought the best thing to do about it was to elect senators. Those who thought the Senate was doing a good job were not asked their opinion about any potential reform.

A Gallup poll conducted in 1961 did ask the question, however, and found that support for elected senators was already widespread. When given the choice between electing senators, abolishing the Senate, or leaving it as is, 45 per cent of Canadians opted for an elected Senate. Support for getting rid of the Red Chamber stood at only 17 per cent, while 18 per cent thought the Senate rules should not be changed (the remaining 19 per cent were unsure).

Growing support for elected senators

Fifty-two years later, the Senate remains in existence and (most) of its senators unelected despite no poll looked at in this analysis having shown even 1-in-3 Canadians supporting the Senate in its current form.

A change of how senators are selected has been, and continues to be, more palatable to Canadians than outright abolition. Reform of the Senate has consistently out-polled support for abolition or the status quo, hovering somewhere between 35 and 50 per cent in most polls going back to the 1980s.

Electing senators is the overwhelming choice for the kind of reform that should take place, and support for it has grown. Angus-Reid has found that support for "allowing Canadians to directly elect their senators" has gone from 60 or 63 per cent in 2008 to around 70 per cent in the last few years.

When abolition was more popular

But overall support for some kind of reform has slackened as the proportion of Canadians willing to do away with the whole institution has increased. Support for abolition hardly budged from that 1961 poll to the 1980s, when around 20 per cent of Canadians preferred getting rid of the Senate instead of keeping it as is or reforming it in some manner. But at around the time of Meech Lake, the number of Canadians saying they would just rather abolish the Senate spiked to around 30 per cent. By the end of the 1990s, that had ballooned to around 40 per cent and had even briefly supplanted reform as the preferred option.

Support for abolition dropped back down to around 30 per cent in the 2000s, but there has been another uptick in the last few years. In an Angus-Reid poll conducted in February, 37 per cent agreed that "Canada does not need a Senate, all legislation should be reviewed and authorized by the House of Commons," well above the 25 per cent that agreed with that statement in a July 2010 poll by the same firm. Ipsos-Reid found support for abolition to be at 36 per cent in their own February poll. There should be little surprise if that number spikes again in the coming months.

When Canadians have been asked about their support for abolition, without any mention of potential reform, opinion has been mixed. But whereas a February 2010 poll by Angus-Reid found 41 per cent of Canadians opposed to the idea of abolishing the Senate against 29 per cent who supported it, that flipped to 36 per cent support to 31 per cent opposition in their most recent survey.

Quebeckers' appetite for change

One of the hot button issues around the Senate has always been its regional balance that is disadvantageous to some provinces. Likewise, opinions on what to do about the Senate have varied from region to region. In an Angus-Reid poll from 1987, support for reform was over 64 per cent in British Columbia and Alberta, while it had only 54 to 58 per cent support in Central and Atlantic Canada. Today, opinions remain similarly unbalanced with support for reform higher in the west and support for abolition higher in the east.

The scarring of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown debates apparently changed opinions on Senate reform dramatically in Quebec. In 1987, 56 per cent of Quebeckers supported reforming the Senate while only 26 per cent supported abolition. By 1998, support for abolition among Quebeckers was 54 per cent, against only 31 per cent for reform. Those numbers have hardly changed in Quebec since then, while even in Alberta the idea of abolition is gaining steam against reform (though reform is still more popular in Alberta than elsewhere in the country). Atlantic Canadians, who some consider to benefit most from the Senate's seat distribution, are even more likely to support abolition than Ontarians and Westerners. That has counter-intuitively held true in Angus-Reid's polling whether it be 1987, 1998, or 2013.

But popular support for reform or abolition is not nearly enough to doom the current Senate on its own. There has always been an appetite among the Canadian population for some sort of change, but agreeing on what form that change should take, and getting all of the political players needed to make this sort of fundamental transformation to Canada's governing structure to agree as well, has proven impossible. A few ineligible expense claims may not prove to be the catalyst after all.

Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at .

Interact with The Globe