Pre-study in the Canadian Senate

The Canadian Senate is an entirely appointed institution. In the 1970s, the Senate began the process of formalising the practice of pre-study – where a Senate committee would question witnesses and produce a report advising the ministers on the bill before it was even introduced to the Senate floor. This often led to amendments by the government on the Commons floor, and occasionally even the withdrawal of a bill. It was best used with complex, technical legislation.

Percentage of government Commons bills given Senate pre-study (number of government Commons bills amended by the Senate):

1970-2: 0% (4.84%)
1972: 0% (2.86%)
ELECTION
1973-4: 5.56% (1.85%)
1974: 2.86% (11.43%)
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1974-6: 8.07% (6.19%)
1976-7: 3.27% (3.23%)
1977-8: 12.31% (1.54%)
1978-9: 13.46% (0%)
ELECTION
1979: 0% (0%)
ELECTION
1980-3: 19.19% (0.58%)
1983-4: 7.41% (0%)
ELECTION
1984-6: 33.07% (2.36%)
1986-8: 20.89% (8.86%)
ELECTION
1988-9: 0% (0%)
1989-1: 0% (5.10%)
1991-3: 6.67% (1.48%)
ELECTION
1994-6: 0% (3.36%)
1996-7: 0% (7.21%)
ELECTION
1997-9: 0% (8.05%)
1999-0: 0% (4.44%)
ELECTION
2001-2: 1.60% (8.07%)
2002-3: 0% (3.45%)
2004: 0% (2.78%)
ELECTION
2004-5: 0% (3.66%)
ELECTION
2006-7: 0% (7.94%)
2007-8: 3.23% (3.23%)
ELECTION
2008: 0% (0%)
2009: 3.18% (4.76%)
2010-1: 1.64% (0%)
ELECTION
2011-*: 5.40% (2.70%)

*Session still in progress

While pre-study was initiated in 1971 by one Senator Salter Hayden and grew throughout the 1970s and early 80s until the election in 1984 when Brian Mulroney’s government took office. Due to the lack of a convention where the prime minister appoints opposition Senators, the Senate was overwhelmingly Liberal; 42 of the 49 years up to Mulroney’s election saw Liberal prime ministers. Due to Mulroney’s landslide, the House was overwhelmingly Progreesive Conservative.

Many sources I have read claim that the Liberal leader in the Senate Allan MacEachan convinced his fellow senators to end pre-study upon his elevation to the Senate in 1984 because the Liberals in the Senate did not want to be seen to be helping the Progressive Conservatives in government and wanted to show their strength by opposing bills. However the statistics make it clear that, if anything, these years could easily claim to be a brief golden age for pre-study. If Senator MacEachen did persuade his fellow Senators to abandon pre-study during Mulroney’s government, it was near the end of his first parliament – perhaps the same time they defeated his Free Trade Bill and effectively forced an election. If more detailed statistics are available, I’d love to see them.

When pre-study was in use under Liberal governments, the number of government bills amended by the Senate fell to around 4% (the statistics above are not good to generalise, because Canadian sessions have no typical length). When pre-study was used during the Mulroney government’s time in office, it rose to 7%.

Interestingly, the newest parliament, with the government of Stephen Harper, has seen a resurgence of pre-study to levels not seen since the 1980s. Whether this is to speed up his legislative program now he has a majority or if he is concerned about the potential for losing votes in the Senate, I don’t know (given his track record with time allocation, I’d guess the former), but it’ll be interesting to see how the session develops and if this is the start of a new trend.

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