Monarchy Trumps Democracy: Canadian Prime Minister Harper's Unelected Senate Rejects Passed Climate Bill

In a move that has generated serious uproar in the Canadian government, the Conservative dominated Senate has defeated a climate change bill that was passed in the House of Commons by holding a snap vote while several Senators were away.

The move is shocking on several fronts.  Firstly, the vote took place while 15 Liberal Senators were away from the capital.  The vote to defeat the Climate Change Accountability Act passed by a margin of 43-32.  Even more shocking is the fact that the unelected body of officials known as the Canadian Senate overturned a bill that was passed by the House of Commons – government officials elected by the Canadian people.

Jack Layton, the leader of Canada’s third party, the New Democratic Party, called the vote, “One of the most undemocratic acts that we have ever seen in the Parliament of Canada.”

Layton further added, “To take power that doesn’t rightfully belong to them to kill a bill that has been adopted by a majority of the House of Commons representing a majority of Canadians is as wrong as it gets when it comes to democracy in this country.”

Unlike the United States, the Canadian Senate is not elected, but rather selected by the Prime Minister.  Although the Senate is called the upper house, the House of Commons is the real driver of federal public policy.  Most bills are created in the House of Commons, and it is unusual for the Senate to reject bills passed in the lower house.

Considering this, the Senate’s actions are very telling of the Prime Minister’s position on energy policy and climate change.  The Climate Change Accountability Act called for the federal government to establish regulations which would reduce greenhouse gas emissions 25% below 1990 levels by 2020, while setting a long-term target to cut emissions to 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has been reluctant to embrace climate change and the science behind hit, or the large-scale development of alternatives to fossil fuels.  Examples of this position are abundant:

  • He refused to cooperate with the Kyoto protocol signed by previous Prime Minister Jean Chretien.  
  • His negotiations at the Copenhagen Climate Conference last year prompted Canada to be labeled by some as the nation with the worst behaviour.  
  • He has subsidized and supported the production of oil from the environmentally devastating and energy intensive Alberta Oil Sands.  
  • He has refused to pass new federal energy policy which would curb carbon emissions and developing new technologies.

Canada’s progress in renewable energy has largely been driven at the local and provincial levels.  The City of Vancouver has set its sights on becoming the world’s greenest city.  The city’s goal is being propelled by the fact its provincial government may have the most progressive regulatory policy on carbon emissions in the world, helping to make the province of British Columbia a US$15 billion haven for cleantech investment.  Further east, the provincial government of Ontario has grown its renewable energy industry by phasing out coal power and enacting some of the best cleantech subsidies on the planet.

With the United Nations’ latest negotiations to establish a legally binding global treaty to curb greenhouse gas emissions less than two weeks away, Stephen Harper has already showed his hand. 

Although, as Graham Saul, the executive director of Climate Action Network Canada, says, Harper’s hand may not represent Canada’s: “[The bill] won the support of a majority of Members of Parliament, not once but twice, at a time when the majority of Canadians are demanding stronger action on climate change in Canada.”


I’ve always viewed the Canadian Senate as an obvious impediment to democratic principles, even when it’s been presented as some kind of last bastion for “sober second thought”. It was one of the few issues in which I agreed with the Reform/Conservatives.

So it’s especially interesting to see one of the Senate’s most vocal opponents (Prime Minister Stephen Harper) standing silently aside while the institution he supposedly so despises obstructs democracy, which he supposedly cherishes.

I suppose we can hope that he will re-introduce the legislation (Bill C-311) soon so it can be passed for a third time and hopefully then through a more vigilant Senate.

“…So if action on climate change is a morally and fiscally conservative position, then where are Canada’s Conservative voices asking for action on climate change?

We know that many conservatives do care. A poll released last Thursday indicates that a substantial majority of Conservative Party supporters polled believed that Canada and other industrialized countries have a special obligation to take action on climate change. Other polls confirm that many, perhaps most, conservatives are deeply concerned about climate change…”