Thursday, September 07, 2006

Senate Reform from the Reformer - Part 1

It was only a matter of time until Prime Minister Harper devoted some time to one of his favourite long-standing issues: Senate reform. Today in the first-ever appearance of a sitting Prime Minister before the Senate of Canada, Harper announced he would be introducing legislation in the Fall sitting of the House to elect senators.

He has already introduced legislation to change to change the term of senators from retirement at age 75 (brought down from a lifetime appointment in 1965) to a single 6 to 8 year term depending on how the Bill changes as it progresses through the House and Senate.

Those with a long memory will recall the bad olde days of the Reform Party under Preston Manning when the battle-cry was "the west wants in!" One of the ways the west wanted in was through the Triple-E Senate. The idea was relatively simple one albeit with complex ramifications. The goal is to reform the Senate such that it would become:

  • Effective: Because the Senate is not elected and appointed on a partisan basis, it lacks legitimacy and is unaccountable.
  • Equal: Rather than representing regions, each province would have an equal number of senators more like the US Senate.
  • Elected: The Senate and its important functions must be elected in order to play a legitimate role as a lawmaking body with the members accountable to the people of Canada through a democratic election process.Fundamentally, Senate reform is about three issues: powers, composition and membership.
In terms of powers, it is widely unrealized that in all powers except the ability to originate a money bill (budget, tax or expenditure) the Senate and the House of Commons are equivalent constitutionally.

In fact in the early days of Confederation, it was unclear where the power would eventually lay so John A. MacDonald seriously looked at a Senate seat because he thought that might be where the action was going to be. As it turned out the real action lay with the House of Commons but that has evolved that way because the Senate has largely declined to exercise the powers it has.

These days the Senate has taken on different roles - investigative, committee reports, legislative refinement - but has seldom thrown it's weight around because it has lacked the electoral legitimacy to do so with any confidence. The exceptions, like the GST Senate insurgency under Mulroney, are very much the exceptions.

Few, if any, Senate reformers have suggested trimming Senate powers (other than those advocating total abolishment) and many have suggested expanding the powers to be more like the US Senate (approving treaties, court appointments etc).

The composition of the Senate has been a ripe target for senate reformers. Right now the Senate has 105 members broken down into the 4 regions of West, Ontario, Quebec and Maritimes with 24 senators each plus further adjustments for NL and the territories. The final provincial tallies are:
  • Alberta 6
  • British Columbia 6
  • Manitoba 6
  • Saskatchewan 6
  • New Brunswick 10
  • Newfoundland and Labrador 6
  • Nova Scotia 10
  • Prince Edward Island 4
  • Ontario 24
  • Quebec 24
  • Yukon 1
  • Northwest Territories 1
  • Nunavut 1
An article of faith amongst the triple-E advocates is that this arrangement is manifestly unfair and they want to see, at a minimum, equality among all provinces. Manning backed the idea of 10 senators per province. The argument is that there needs to be some regional balance in the central government to protect the less populous regions of the country from central domination.

The next post will discuss the implications of Harper's proposal for an elected Senate and what he needs to do to achieve it.

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