The chattering of the would-be Senate reformers

Senate

In listening to the reaction to Justin Trudeau’s move last week to force all Senators from the Liberal Party’s national caucus, it was curious to hear some of the continued misunderstandings and misapprehensions about the Senate and its role by long-time reform advocates.  Most disturbing were some of those who had led the charge for Senate reform for years.

For example, the president of the Canada West Foundation believes that “sober second thought” is a quaint and passé notion, which is a surprise to anyone who has spent any amount of time observing the Senate, or who has seen amendments to bills that come out of the Senate.  Same with the times that bills get more and better scrutiny on the Senate side, owing to a less rigid committee structure and a less partisan atmosphere, where more substantive questions are asked rather than those designed simply to score points.  But oh, apparently that’s just a relic of times past.

One of the other, more fraught considerations is that of provincial weighting in the Senate.  The slogan-driven rallying cry of Triple-E – as in “elected,” “equal” and “effective” – constantly comes back to haunt the current debate over Senate reform without any particular understanding that proposal’s origins or limitations.

The Triple-E model was largely the child of the backlash to the National Energy Program and the 1986 decision to award the CF-18 maintenance contract to a Montreal firm rather than one in Winnipeg.  The theory went that such a reformed Senate would have its senators more beholden to regional interests than party ones, and that they could have prevented either of those decisions.  The flaw in the logic, of course, is that these elected Senators would have party affiliations – an absolute necessity when it comes to contesting elections in this country given the organizational and financial demands that would come with running a province-wide campaign.  As well, even if it were a vote based on regional lines, there is the fact that the oil consuming provinces would have supported the NEP over the oil producers and still carried the votes, and the added fact that a decision like the CF-18 maintenance contract is based solely on Crown prerogative and never would have made it to a vote in the Senate in the first place.

As well, the fundamental model behind a Triple-E chamber is an attempt to graft an American institution into a Westminster context without understanding the other dynamics at play, including the various checks and balances or relationship between executive and legislative powers.  American states have proportionately less constitutional power than Canadian provinces do, and therefore the design of their Senate makes more sense in their context.  It creates for a false sense of portability that the systems could be so easily swapped.

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The notion of provincial equality in the Senate is also curious considering that it is based on a model of regional equality – 24 senators for each of the four major regions (the Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec and the West) plus six senators for Newfoundland and Labrador and one each per territory.  Because the Senate was built along regional, rather than provincial lines, this was seen as the way to achieve equality and to balance out the representation-by-population of the Commons.  But the dialogue around how places like BC and Alberta are “under-represented” in the Senate betray that sense of both regionalism and counterbalancing rep-by-pop.  Indeed, if you look at population figures for each Senate region, you’ll find that three of the four are fairly close – Ontario with 13.5 million people, Quebec with 8 million, and the four western provinces with nearly 11 million.  The Maritimes and Newfoundland of course have a fraction of that population, but the same number of seats as their protection for their minority interests in the federation.

Upsetting the balance by redistributing seats is something that should not be taken lightly.  There is merit in having a conversation about potentially rebalancing the regional makeup of the Senate, such as with the proposal put forward by now retired Senators Jack Austin and Lowell Murray several years ago, which would have given BC 12 seats of its own, and redistributed its six seats from the Western region so that Alberta gained four, and Saskatchewan and Manitoba one more seat each.  It was a novel idea, which still required a constitutional amendment, but nevertheless would likely have had a deleterious effect on the regional equality of the Senate, not to mention the fact that Alberta’s population has nearly caught up to BC’s, and there would soon be complaints about unfairness to Alberta and its interests.  Which brings me back to the president of Canada West Foundation, who says “no elections without Triple-E” given how it would supposedly disadvantage Alberta and BC.

The other consideration is the effect on the Senate as a whole would be with capacity.  If you simply had five or six Senators per province, you would greatly diminish the capacity of the Senate with the loss of nearly half of its seats.  All of the committee work that happens right now requires those hundred senators that currently exist.  Losing that would mean the loss of the kinds of serious policy work that goes on right now as the focus shifts more to the day to day scrutiny of legislation, with Senators having to take on more committee work as there are fewer of them to go around.   As well, the current constitutional guarantees that there can’t be more Senators than MPs for each province would either have to be amended for the sake of PEI, or it would need to gain even more MPs relative to its population.

Talk of Senate reform is frequently full of big ideas that aren’t well thought through.  We need to ensure that any proposals would have the substantive changes that would benefit the system, rather than simply be a slogan that would make for a far worse system than currently exists – which Triple-E certainly would be.

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Other articles by Dale Smith

Should Trudeau be able to charge speaking fees?
The Angus Standard On Election Rules

Follow Dale Smith on twitter: @journo_dale

 

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