Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Making the Senate work

VICTORIA - It's worth giving the Senate one more chance.
There are lots of people - Premier Gordon Campbell among them - who don't want to spend more time talking about Senate reform. It's time to just get rid of it and move on, they say. You can see their point. Start with a basic issue - representation. B.C. gets six senators, the same as Newfoundland, which has 12 per cent of our province's population.  New Brunswick, with 750,000 people to B.C.'s 4.2 million, has four more seats.  Each B.C. senator represents 700,000 people. Each New Brunswick senator, 75,000.
It's hard to claim legitimacy for any legislative body that is so wildly unrepresentative. Add to that the Senate's inability to demonstrate real usefulness and public anger at patronage appointments and the future looks bleak for the so-called upper house.
A pair of senators is making a bid to address the representation problem. Jack Austin, a Liberal from B.C, and Lowell Murray, a Nova Scotia Conservative, hope to win changes that would recognize that B.C. and the West are short-changed in the Senate. Their plan would add 12 new members to the Senate, taking it to 117. B.C. would get six more senators and Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba would also gain. B.C. would still be under-represented, but the reform would be a big, positive change. Austin and Murray have already introduced their proposal in the Senate. They say other provinces should go along because they won't lose any seats and the changes are fair. Not likely. This kind of change requires a constitutional amendment.  That means the change requires the support of Parliament, the Senate and at least seven province with 50 per cent of the Canadian population. And that, despite the optimism of the two senators, isn't going to happen. Other provinces would not lose seats under the proposal, but they would lose influence. Quebec has 23 per cent of Senate seats today; it would have 21 per cent in the proposed expanded version. No Quebec government could take the political heat involved in even that tiny loss of power.
And the four Atlantic provinces would also likely say no to change.  The Senate's composition was negotiated as part of the terms of Confederation, they maintain. The small provinces were promised the seats to ensure their interests weren't forgotten. (The argument has worked; the West last got more seats in 1915.)
Prime Minister Stephen Harper appears to agree that major Senate reform is too tough an issue. Harper's first stab at changing the way the Senate works is useful, but tiny. Under his plan, senators would be appointed for eight-year terms. They now keep the job until they turn 75.
That's more tinkering than reform, surprising given Harper's past life in the old Reform/Alliance party which wanted a "Triple E" senate - elected, equal and effective.
Harper's desire to avoid another constitutional debate is understandable. But he could still be doing more. Harper could start the process of shifting to an elected Senate without any legislative or constitutional changes. All he has to do is announce that he'll be guided in naming future senators by the results of any legitimate provincial vote.
Alberta has already had three Senate 'elections,' adding the question to provincial election ballots. The first successful candidate even made it into the upper chamber when Brian Mulroney honoured the voters' choice in 1990. (Jean Chretien and Paul Martin ignored the results of Alberta's Senate elections.)
Why not just let the Senate go?
Despite its failings, the Senate could be useful. There is merit to the idea of a legislative body where members are able to take the long view of issues, unworried about their prospects of re-election in a few years (or months).
That's especially true if senators are selected from outside the usual ranks of political partisans for their intellect or experience of compassion or expertise.
But time is running out.
Footnote: Campbell's abolitionist position is shared by Ontario's Dalton McGuinty, Manitoba's Gary Doer and Saskatchewan's Lorne Calvert. An Ipsos-Reid poll this summer found about one-third of those surveyed said the Senate should be abolished and 44 per cent said senators should be elected. British Columbians were among its strongest supporters.


Anonymous said...

Either way, the present system has some hard working folks but we have to always remember they were political appointments decided by one person. As such, they are beholding. I'm not that sure in province elections would do that much good, so we either keep up the present system or drop them. But if we drop them what will replace them? The NDP says drop them, but do they suggest a alternative. without one folks like the present PM might get all his wishes even in a divided house.

Some of those guys are a bit of a joke played on the canadian citizens.

Anonymous said...

I would love an elected Senate just for the sheer specualtion of who would run!

Muskwa Littlebear said...

I think the provincial honouring of senators elected for seats is not only a good way to get around the constitutional issue, but in time could make it a more efficent part of the government body. If you got people who really, really wanted to be there rather than people who felt they were entitled to be there for service to said parties, then I think the dynamics could change.

Having said that, I agree with your assessment that Harper could be doing more. He could easily start encouraging the provinces, and start signalling a willingness to accept a senator regardless of political stripe. This would probably play well for him as well, showing that he is making the effort to appeal to all regions.

I like the move for the limit of eight year terms and the 75 year cut off.

I think it would be interesting if we had somebody, say, in their 20's or 30's run for it instead of the standard fair you see in the senate.

I don't think that we should abolish it simply because it does serve a basic purpose: to double check the legislation. I don't think I ever want to see any legislation passed without some second thought given to it.