Preston Manning, father of the Canadian Reform Party, the “reform” in question being about as bad an idea as you could have (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Does anyone recall the Reform Party of Canada’s campaign starting in the late 1980s to impose on our country a “Triple-E Senate” – that is to say elected, effective, and, above all, “equal”?

Pushed by the likes of Calgary-area farmer Bert Brown and would-be philosopher king Preston Manning, this call for institutional reform based on the supposedly more democratic model of the United States caught the imaginations of perpetual complainers on the Prairies, although it never gained much traction elsewhere in Canada.

Bert Brown, Calgary-area farmer and “Triple-E” Senate campaigner appointed to the unelected Canadian Senate by Stephen Harper in 2007 (Photo: Parliament of Canada).

Its most enthusiastic supporters never paid much heed to the warnings of constitutional experts about the dangers of such a scheme from the United States’ slavery-era constitution, and it became an article of faith in Alberta that like the false narrative about the National Energy Program lingers to this day.

Mr. Brown, who famously plowed “Triple E Senate or Else” into his field on the flight path to Calgary’s airport, died in 2018, but not before he got to spend from 2007 to 2013 as an unelected Canadian senator courtesy of then Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.

Mr. Manning, the closest thing you could be to a lifelong professional politician in Canada without quite making the cut, led the Reform Party from 1987 to 2000, and was the leader of the Opposition in Parliament from 1997 to 2000. Mr. Manning has only just retired, but he haunts us just the same.

Not so well understood nowadays is the role that agitation for a “regional fairness criterion,” as Mr. Harper described the Triple-E Senate at the Reform Party’s founding assembly in Winnipeg in November 1987, played in the transformation of Canada’s conservative movement into an extremist doppelgänger of the U.S. Republican Party.

Indeed, arguably that was the main purpose of the whole Canadian Triple-E scheme, since the people pushing it knew perfectly well it stood no chance of gaining popular or institutional support outside the Prairies.

As Darren Loucaides explained in the Guardian on Thursday, “The party’s argument was framed around the need for reform of institutions such as Canada’s Senate.” But “the goal was to derail the socially liberal direction of the Conservatives, and push sweeping tax cuts, tougher law-and-order policies and more direct democracy through referendums, as well as opposing multiculturalism.”

That goal was eventually largely achieved, resulting in the hostile reverse takeover of the Canadian Progressive Conservatives by the Reform Party in 2003, giving us what Mr. Loucaides called the “radical-right outfit” we now know as the Conservative Party of Canada.

Nigel Farage, the unsavoury leader of the U.K. Brexit Party, soon to be rebranded as Reform U.K. (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Indeed, this gambit was so successful in Canada that Brexit Party founder Nigel Farage – a speaker at Mr. Manning’s annual right-wing clambake in Ottawa in 2013 and on the campaign trail for U.S. Republican loser Donald Trump much more recently – is now applying to change the name of his party to Reform U.K.

Now that Brexit is a disastrous reality, what will become an easy-to-grasp issue around which the unsavoury Mr. Farage will rally his radical-right supporters for an eventual reverse takeover of the British Conservative Party? You guessed it: Reform of the House of Lords!

And Mr. Harper, former prime minister of Canada and puppet master of the Alberta provincial government, waits in the shadows, now leader of the misnamed International Democratic Union, the Internationale of the neoliberal right, to assist Mr. Farage in his latest anti-democratic endeavour.

The goal of that British campaign would be the same as the goal of the Canadian Senate reform effort in the 1980s and 1990s – which remains on life support in the political intensive care unit known as Alberta. And, yes, we’ll have yet another unconstitutional and needless “Senate nominee” election next year.

U.S. President Donald Trump (Photo: Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons).

To wit: To bring the disaster of the U.S. Senate to new countries, creating as in the United States a permanent institutionalized edge for social conservative and neoliberal parties based on support from underpopulated rural regions of their countries.

The past week has demonstrated clearly to the whole world just how well this “democratic reform” would actually work.

In the best-case scenario once the dust from last week’s presidential and congressional elections in the United States has settled, the U.S. Senate, an institution created in the 18th Century specifically to thwart popular democracy, will have a 50-50 split between Democratic and Republican Party Senators.

They will have been put there by 45 million Democratic votes and only 33 million Republican votes! The equality in a Triple-E Senate, in other words, is only among regions, and is preposterously skewed against the democratic ideal of one person, one vote.

This is by design, based on the American Founding Fathers’ profound distrust of popular democracy. It was for the same reason that the Founders created the Electoral College to choose the victors of presidential elections.

In other words, the conservative bias of the U.S. Constitution – which has arguably already led to one bloody civil war in that country – is a feature, not a bug.

Obviously, Canada doesn’t need or want a Triple-E Senate. The United States, moreover, desperately needs Senate reform.

Just like Canada, for slightly different reasons, our American cousins need a Triple-A Senate:

Abolish, Abolish, Abolish!

Join the Conversation


  1. I understand the outcome of the Senate portion of the US election remains to be determined. The main issue is one normally Republican state requires Senators to get over 50% of the vote and none there did, so there will be a run off race in January for its two Senate seats. Now that state also looks like it very narrowly voted for Biden. I think the only certainty about elections in the US is they seemingly never end.

    If the Republicans retain control of the Senate, they will be able to limit Democrat initiatives and there could be some degree of gridlock. It seems like gridlock has also become a big feature or a bug of the US political system and I suspect that suits many in their Conservative elite just fine.

    I don’t have a problem with Senate reform in Canada, but both the current distribution and the US modelled Tripple E system have their problems. Obviously a model based on 50 states that do not vary in size distribution quite as much as in Canada will not well work here. Just try and tell Ontario or Quebec they only get two or ten Senators and see what happens! Of course, any change would require their support. I suspect the only way they would support it is if they do not lose Senators from their current numbers. It is either a testament to Mr. Manning’s foolishness or persistence that he has not figured this part out.

    Now, a model that gives the west more senators (after all many more people live here now when the allocation was last set), and being elected while retaining the numbers for other regions is possible. However Tripple E is never going to fly in Canada. We have been talking about it for almost 40 years and nothing has happened – that should be a big clue this idea is unworkable.

    I could however see an elected Senate with more represenation for the west, perhaps based on proportional representation. However, I suspect Canadian Conservatives would just prefer to continue to talk about something unachievable, rather than something more realistic that might just actually work, as it feeds their narrative of regional grievance.

    1. The Canadian Senate cannot be a tool to give “more representation for the west,” not by any proportional population measure: we already have the House of Commons for popularly-weighted democratic representation, we don’t need to duplicate.

      Agreed: it’s very probably moot, anyhow, not only because the constitutional amending formula of 1982 makes any Senate reform almost impossible to achieve, but also because of the way Senate seats were apportioned to the provinces as sops and inducements during the confederations of former colonies and charters into provinces (40% of Canada’s area has not yet been confederated—the Territories are departments of the federal government, their nearest sovereign authority) resulting in the unequal distribution of seats among the provinces that, eventually, made amending the constitution (in order to reform the Senate) almost impossible to apply in this or any other matter.

      A federal Senate is supposed to represent federated regions—provinces— not populations (the HoC already does that). Since each province is an equal signatory to the federation (unequal signatories belong to confederacies —but we only have one, single federation, not a group of federations), then each should have an equal number of seats, regardless geographic size or population. That is, seats should not be apportioned by popular weight, the only criterion relevant being whether a province is in the federation or not: if it is (as it must be in a federation), then it should have the same number of seats as any other province in the federation. That’s the equal part: seats, not ‘rep by pop’.

      If the Senate were elected, then it would have to be effective as well as equal (the other two ‘E’s of “Triple-E”). Alberta’s elected Senators might as well be appointed, like all other provinces have, for all the difference it makes in the ineffective —or rarely effective—House of Parliament we currently have. I’m not sure Canadians could wrap their heads around the difference between what Members of the HoC do and what Senators do—they would expect Senators to do something, even though the chamber of ‘sober second thought’ may only reject or approve legislation, not make it. I think there’d certainly be potential for national discord should one province block federal legislation the others want—but that’s what elected Senates would have to do. The two seat American model usually has both Senators from a particular state members of the same party and, therefore, beholden to the federal party—that is, Republican Senators from a single state have to cow tow to the federal caucus rather than represent the particularities of their state—although, because Congressional parliamentarians don’t have to worry about maintaining confidence, Senators can’t necessarily be whipped, and it used to be that bipartisan horse-trading could happen within he general Glenda of each party. Since Carl Rove advised George W Bush’s presidency, hyper-partisanship has been the norm, distorting, some say, the real intent of this supposed body of sober second thought.

      Proportionality within a hypothetical, elected, equal Canadian Senate could only be achieved by each province electing enough Senators with which to reflect the proportions of party votes in the province, say, ten Senators apiece for a total of one hundred in Ottawa. Nevertheless, the tendency would be to for each provincial Senator to vote the federal party line, not necessarily represent —not without compromises in the entire Senate—their province. That’s probably what Canadians would mistakenly expect.

      It’s moot, anyway: no province would ratify Senate reform (or anything else) without a quid pro quo peculiar to itself—but probably not to every other province, or to seven of the ten provinces—not without meeting their own, respective, quid pro quo demands. The very idea of equality would be an anathema to provinces which are currently advantaged by the number of seats they’ve been awarded, as unequal as they are (Quebec is constitutionally guaranteed a certain proportion of Senate seats, PEI is guaranteed a minimum number of seats, regardless the distribution of seats to other provinces, &c.) It appears that even abolishing the Senate—which would, in effect, treat each province equally—would be just as unlikely.

  2. “The equality in a Triple E Senate, in other words, is only among regions, and is preposterously skewed against the ideal of one person, one vote.” David have you looked at the make up of today’s senate? New Brunswick 10 senators population 776 827. Nova Scotia 10 senators population 971 395. Prince Edward Island 4 senators population 156 947. Newfoundland 6 senators population 521 542. British Columbia 6 senators population 5 071 000. Alberta 6 senators population 4 371 000.

    British Columbia for example has 6.5 times the population of New Brunswick and yet only 60% the number of senators. I am all for a chamber of second thought and a triple E senate would be far less preposterous than what exists today!!!

    1. Its not enough. The jurisdictions with the benefit currently will not give it up, and the senate has no enduring power. All of the federal parties have to be electable in metro jurisdictions and they can ignore non-metro jurisdictions so majoritarian politics are here to stay whomsoever is overlord in Ottawa.

      Tweaks will not suffice.

  3. There was one thing that became apparent to me after being exposed to Presto Manning’s talks about Reeeeefooooorm over a few years: he loves all things American, including their stupidity.

    Manning spent years selling the idea of a Triple-EEE senate as the solution to all of Canada’s regional infighting. Of course, Manning declared that the Triple-EEE was the ticket to assuring that there would be solid western representation in federal decision-making. However, Manning conveniently ignored the very strong possibility that provinces would gang up on the twenty or so western senators pretty easily. He also ignored that senators from B.C. would never side with Alberta and Saskatchewan anyway. And he also ignored that it was pretty obvious that the biggest selling point behind the Triple-EEE senate in the west was that they would never have to consider voting Liberal ever again.

    On every count, the Triple-EEE senate was the meathead’s approach to reforming confederation. The solution was also in front of people’s eyes if they would just do it: elect more Liberals. Considering that the idiocy was strong in the Reform Party, it was assured that this stupid idea would never die — and still hasn’t.

    Like the US Senate, the Triple-EEE senate would have become an asylum for those western alienation fetishists looking for careers at the public trough.

    Bad ideas never fade away; they just come to Alberta where they will live forever.

  4. While the “Triple-E” concept was espoused by the Reform Party in 1988, it was preceded 4 years earlier by the also faux-populist Confederation of Regions Party in 1984.
    Elected? – yes, we understand that; Effective? – like the Reform platform, it was never defined how or what could be accomplished; Equal? – more than a few people pointed out that that the country was already separated by regions with random lines on a map: 10 provinces and 2 territories, as opposed to CoR’s 5 regions ( I can’t recall where the YT and NWT fell into the equation).
    Thankfully, given some of the players involved in the movement, the federal version disappeared quickly and quietly following the 1984 election.

  5. So, majoritarianism is good and living with a government situation which has more political power to older constituted jurisdictions is a good thing?

    If you’re not saying the unfair situation that exists currently isn’t fair, then what is your solution?

    1. Upper and Lower Canada have more power in Confederation than does the more recently constituted Alberta because they have vastly larger populations. This is not in itself an injustice. That you don’t get you way all the time in everything is not an injustice. That your ha don’t vote is not an injustice. The NWT and Nunavut are considerably larger than Alberta, but I don’t hear them complaining.

      1. Upper and lower Canada I could care less about and I definitely never said anything about political power based on land mass. What a weird idea.

        The current government system in Canada is broken because federal politics has too much power and only needs to achieve a majoritarian consensus. Meaning they dont have to represent all Canadians and can sacrifice the livelihoods of Canadian jurisdictions for political gain in other jurisdictions.

        1. Death’s “weird idea” is simply that each province is an equal partner in the federation, regardless size of population, but that, in accordance with ordinary democratic principles, regions with higher populations have more democratic weight or representation—you know, “rep by pop”. Remember?

          Our government is definitely not broken—in fact, it’s not allowed to be, so says the Queen (actually, so says her office as Head of State: Canadians must have a government which can act at all times), your opinion notwithstanding.

          The federal government has less political power than the provinces; conversely, Canadian provinces are among the most politically powerful jurisdictions in the free world. Each province is sovereign, with its own lieutenant governor representative of the HoS (HM Queen Elizabeth II), and relinquishes the minimum part of that sovereignty in order the federal government, like any other, can function. In addition, any province may avail a constitutional process to secede from the federation—something than many federations —like the USA, for obvious reasons (hint: Civil War)—do not allow.

          The federal government does not “sacrifice the livelihoods of Canadians”, but it’s a charge any provincial bumpkin can make. If you’re talking about the plight of Alberta’s bitumen industry, try to realize the market price of dilbit that’s made bitumen mining and smelting infeasible is about world market capitalism, not the federal government. If any government be blamed for the impoverishment of laid off bitumen workers, it would have to be Alberta’s: it didn’t save enough petroleum royalties for when this inevitability happened, and therefore doesn’t have the resources to help Albertans diversify their economy in this circumstance—in short, it put all the eggs in one basket. All Canadians in the federation bought a pipeline for Alberta, even though it won’t do a darn thing about low dilbit prices (indeed, it might depress prices even more by increasing supply)—so it’s past trite to suggest any different. A Manitoban or Nova Scotian or British Columbian could just as well complain that the feds “sacrificed” their own wellbeing in order to get political gain in another jurisdiction—namely Alberta.

          In fact, if it wasn’t for the generosity of all our federated compatriots, Alberta would be in a right pickle right now.

          I mean, really! Is it the Wild Rose Province or the Buttercup Province?

  6. Quick, quick before he’s gone. It’s not too late to give Preston his dream, a Triple-E Senate where he can revel in the legislative limelight once again.
    Too old at 78 you say? Nonsense, take the energetic lawmakers to our south. Many Senators look like the Sunset Nursing Home. They’ve got Diane Feinstein and Chuck Grassley, both 87, Richard Shelby 86, Jim Inhofe 85, Pat Roberts 84. The young’uns are Patrick Leahy and Lamar Alexander, both sprightly at 80. Trailing the ninth decade group are Bernie Sanders at 79 and Mr. Obstruction Himself, Mitch McConnell, 78. When he went to his greater reward, Ol’ Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond was 100 years young.
    Age is no barrier to effective leadership. Do Preston proud, Canada. Make him a real Senator. Mr. Harper will be happier than a Trump supporter in 2016.

    1. So do I, but instead of writing, This ballot is invalid” on it, or coloring in the entire thing, I might have to get more creative. Maybe a popular coffee mug slogan? Or, “Help me, I’ve been abducted by Angus McBeath and I’m being held captive at a used car lot.” Nah, too long. “Where in the world is Adriana LaGrange?” I’ll think of something. It sure won’t be “X”.

  7. So you are in favour of mob rule then? 51% making all the decisions and 49% living with the consequences? Sounds a lot like what we already have in Alberta and yet you don’t seem happy.
    Your tendency towards favouring technocratic rule is a little concerning when in reality these technocrats would represent the same billionaires that own our politicians today. Look at how Greece was treated by the technocrats at the EU? For all its flaws the American system doesn’t let the elites on the two coasts dominate the middle. Perhaps the reform that should be advocated for is term limits.

    1. Jim: I believe you have put your finger exactly on the problem: the capture of the technocratic class by the billionaire/oligarchs is exactly why things are falling apart, especially for the middle and working classes. The brilliance of the oligarchs has been to convince a large cohort of people that creating a power vacuum by limiting government will fix the problem of the capture of the state by big business when we can see in the US, Canada, and the EU that exactly the opposite happens.

      There is lots of blame to go around, but the timid labour unions and the NDP focusing on identity politics rather than bread and butter issues are especially disappointing. Don’t get me started on the “temporarily embarrassed millionaires” who make up the rank and file of the UCP.

      There are lots of historical examples of how the oligarchs will use the state to save themselves (Britain 1914 to 1915, or Germany 1930 to 39, or the US and Canada in 1929 to 1935 all come to mind). However the current crop of oligarchs still think they can retire to bunkers or New Zealand and carry on which makes them even more deluded than their UCP believers.

  8. I got news, Buddy.

    The opposite of the UCP minority governing the entire nation is not Mob Rule.

    The “elites on both coasts” in fact represent the vast majority of the American electorate. Why should they be shackled to the narrow interests and crass prejudices of a bunch of ranchers in Wyoming? Similarly, why should Calgary and rural Alberta have a veto in Confederation? There is not some special sauce that makes the inhabitants of rural areas more special than anyone else. Their hectares do not vote. What makes you think that they should?

  9. Thank you Dave for bringing up one of my favourite topics! I have not commented for a while on this site because usually I am in general agreement with what you write here and have nothing of value to add. But today I do disagree with you! Somewhat.

    First, the idea of an assembly that awards regions equally is not automatically self-destructive. The UN has some success in helping us avoid nuclear war. The Haudenosaunee confederacy was pretty successful balancing the needs of the several Longhouses in times of war and peace for several centuries. And the US has had a pretty good run and seems likely to continue strong despite the occasional serious missteps.

    Second, the very name “United States” shows how that ‘nation’ came to be; individual states came together. The Senate structure was an essential compromise that the more populous states had to make to bring the smaller ones onside peacefully. One can say things have changed since then, but that view can be reasonably challenged. It’s their history and heritage. Maybe they should change, but if so, to what? To say it in real-politics terms, are the big states today big enough to force the small states to give up their already limited influence?

    Finally, for anyone’s interest, I have an essay at that shows the quantitative changes that the 3E senate would have on the provinces’ balance of power in the Canadian parliament.

    thanks, as always, for a good post.

  10. While, as you do, I support abolition of the Senate, in the world of realpolitik in which we live, that is highly unlikely to happen. However, looking at the issue dispassionately, I’m not sure the ‘EEE’ model for the upper chamber is inherently a bad thing. The Benighted States is not the only example; look, instead at the Commonwealth of Australia, which has a Senate composed of 12 members from each of that country’s six (6) states, & two from each of the two territories. The Australian Senate is elected by a form of proportional representation, the single transferable ballot, not by FPTP, and comprises a number of political parties, not just two as in the US.

    The real fundamental problems with American politics lie not in the design of the Senate, but in the fact that it is an extreme case of Duverger’s Law, with only two viable political parties in a huge diverse country that virtually cries out for more, and in the weirdness that national-level elections are regulated & managed at the State and even County level. The Democratic Party should really be split up into classical liberal and more progressive wings, while the Republicans are, much like our Canadian Conservative party, a mish-mosh of neo-liberal free-market libertarians, law-&-order authoritarians, Teddy Roosevelt big-stick militarists, ideologically inconsistent right-wing populists, and regressive social conservatives, all of whom coexist uncomfortably in one big Trumpist tent.

  11. It could be alright if modelled to be proportional within a state, like Australia’s Senate – allowing for a cross bench to exist while making it hard for any party to get a majority of a state’s senators. For Canada, you could do something like 5 senators a province, or maybe 10 or however you see fit (just, please do more than 3 or 4) elected by some proportional method, STV, even a darn party list vote

    That being said, Australia’s system doesn’t exhibit a bias to rural parties as strongly as the US, in part because there are so few states, and also because all the states are heavily urbanised and as such, an explicitly rural party doesn’t get that much of a boost. Even Tasmania, which may be smaller than the smallest US state has roughly 40-50% of its population living in its biggest city (and suburbs) – and probably 80-90% living in non rural areas.

    By contrast, the US has multiple “farm states” that are more rural and lean much more strongly R and are over represented.

    For Canada, I’m not sure. I hope it would produce a situation closer to Australia’s, where the Senate, despite malapportionment (by definition due to states having different populations) doesn’t necessarily favour the governing party or give the opposition a majority veto, but instead gives a cross bench that gives a check on pure majority government (which MMP would also do in reducing the frequency of majority government).
    Would Canada’s senate be like Australia’s?
    – Canada’s population is fairly urbanised
    – but urban areas in the West may be much more conservative than other urban areas
    – Atlantic provinces would still probably have disproportionate clout (members to people), and Ontario and Quebec would be disadvantaged regardless
    – Three strong parties may leave a limited crossbench in terms of non Liberal, Conservative or NDP

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