(Ottawa) Vacant seats are piling up in the Senate. Currently, there are 16 vacancies in the Upper House out of a total of 105 seats and at least two more senators are expected to retire this year.
Experts believe that this situation could slow the pace of parliamentary work if Prime Minister Justin Trudeau does not make new appointments soon. Because the Senate plays an important role in the study of bills that are proposed by the government and adopted by the House of Commons. Senators must also comb through all bills before they receive Royal Assent from Governor General Mary Simon and come into force.
“It is worrying to see that there are so many vacations. This can slow down the work of the Senate. It is not normal that there are 16 vacant seats out of 105,” argued Geneviève Tellier, professor at the School of Political Studies at the University of Ottawa.
The vacant seats are likely to slow down the work of the committees, which dissect government bills and hear witnesses.
The Prime Minister’s Office had not responded to questions from La Presse about the vacant seats at the time of this writing.
All provinces except Manitoba have at least one vacant seat. The Atlantic provinces are the most affected. For example, Prince Edward Island, which is entitled to four seats in the Senate, has two vacant seats. New Brunswick and Nova Scotia each have three vacant seats, about one-third of their seats. These two provinces are entitled to 10 seats each in the Upper House.
For the moment, there is only one vacant seat in Quebec and two in Ontario. The other vacant seats are in Alberta (2), British Columbia (1), Saskatchewan (1) and Newfoundland and Labrador (1). In 2024, another 10 seats will be vacated by retiring senators.
After coming to power in 2015, Justin Trudeau changed the formula for appointing senators. Instead of appointing people who have worked for the party for years as fundraisers or campaign organizers, the Prime Minister invited Canadians to apply to become a senator. So far, Mr. Trudeau has appointed 59 senators using this formula.
“The mode of appointment has changed. Mr. Trudeau makes calls to all. Lately there haven’t been any problems. The nominations were rather hailed. Mr. Trudeau wanted to rejuvenate and diversify the Senate, and it is done. The percentage of Indigenous senators today is higher than the percentage of Indigenous people in the population. Many boxes have been checked. But if we are not able to appoint senators more quickly, that can be a problem,” said Ms. Tellier.
The 16 vacant seats represent 15.2% of all seats in the Senate. By way of comparison, if we applied the same proportion to the House of Commons, which has 338 MPs, there would be 51 vacant seats. In the Commons, the prime minister has six months to announce the holding of a by-election when a member vacates his seat. In the Senate, there is no time limit for filling vacancies.
At the end of his last term, former prime minister Stephen Harper decided against appointing new senators following an spending scandal that plagued some of the senators he appointed.
Former Senate Speaker, the late Pierre-Claude Nolin, urged Mr. Harper to fill the vacancies. In particular, he claimed that the absence of senators from certain regions had the effect of creating an “imbalance” which affected the proper functioning of the institution.
Mr. Harper had turned a deaf ear to this request. As a result, there were 23 vacant seats after the Conservatives were defeated in the 2015 election. Justin Trudeau was thus able to appoint senators who generally supported his government’s agenda.
“If cannabis is legal today in Canada, it’s a lot because of Stephen Harper. If he had appointed Conservative senators, the cannabis legalization legislation would never have been passed,” said a Conservative source who preferred to remain anonymous.
One can apply to become a senator by completing an online application.
The annual salary of a senator is $169,600. Senators who occupy certain positions or offices are entitled to additional remuneration.
The Senate sits on average about 84 days a year, except when Parliament is dissolved and a general election is called.