Saturday, January 28, 2006

Harper's piecemeal Senate reform plan is bad for B.C.

This has been a pet issue of mine of years, and it's something that I haven't heard talked about much in the media*. But, the fact is, while B.C. has been the backbone of the Reform/Alliance during its rise to power, and reforming the Senate has long been one of that party's rallying cries, their current Senate reform plan would screw B.C. for generations.

It is a fact that B.C. (and increasingly Alberta) is vastly underrepresented in the Red Chamber. Under the constitution, for the purposes of the Senate, the country is divided into four regions with each being allotted 24 senators. Newfoundland, joining confederation later, is separately allotted 6 senators. The breakdown, and that province’s percentage of Canada’s 2001 population, follows:

Ontario: 24 seats (38.0%)

Quebec: 24 seats (24.1%)
Maritime region
Nova Scotia: 10 seats (3.0%)
New Brunswick: 10 seats (2.4%)
PEI: 4 seats (.5%)

West Region
Manitoba: 6 seats (3.7%)
Saskatchewan: 6 seats (3.2%)
Alberta: 6 seats (9.9%)
B.C.: 6 seats (13.0 %)

Not in a region
Newfoundland & Labrador: 6 seats (1.7%)
(Each territory gets one seat each)

While the Senate should have regional balance to counter the representation by population model of the HoC the current regional breakdown is based on an 1867-era Canada that no longer exists. It will be difficult to do (ask Mulroney), but I think B.C. needs to be its own region and the Maritimes and Newfoundland need to send some of their seats to the West and B.C. Lop a few off Ontario and Quebec too so it stays even. Or just give each province the same number of senators.

Now, the only way to redistribute Senate seats is by a constitutional amendment, and no one in their right mind wants to re-open that can of worms. What a Conservative government can do though, and plans to do, is to begin electing senators to fill vacancies as they happen.

Let’s put aside the fact that would create two classes of senators (elected and non-elected). Let’s also put aside the fact that elected senators would actually want to do something, creating the need for a massive rethink of the roles the HoC, the Senate, and the executive play in our political system.

My biggest concern is that unilaterally electing senators would remove the motivation for the real Senate reform that is needed, and is only possible through constitutional amendment. Namely, a redistribution of seats. Therefore, the unbalanced status quo is entrenched and B.C. will be underrepresented in perpetuity. And with elected senators making the Senate more relevant and powerful, that’s doubly bad.

If we’re going to make the senate elected let’s make it equal and effective as well (Triple E). Prime Minister Harper either needs to go all the way on senate reform, or maintain the status quo. Elected senators may play well in Alberta, but on it’s own it’s bad for the West.

I’m personally undecided on Senate reform. I say either scrap it or make it useful, and since they have that nice plush chamber at the East end of the Centre Block, we may as well keep them around. What they should be given to do I don’t know yet.

But these are the kinds of policy debates the Liberal Party needs to have in the coming year. We need to decide what we stand for and then stand-up for it, but that’s another post.

Related reading
The Hill Times: Senate elections could be a prelude to new constitutional talks: experts

* The exception is Norman Spector. It’s one of the few issues we agree on.

Recommend this Post on Progressive Bloggers


Steve V said...

What about a Double E Senate? Equal, elected but not effective. Adding another layer of bureaucracy, which could well cause governmental gridlock isn't really a plus in my mind. The American model of pork barrel politics and constant deal making isn't something to envy.

Anonymous said...

Some points:

The Senate is plenty useful for what it costs us. Its committee's produce great studies, it's membership has at least as many persons of worth as the house of commons, and it provides parliament with an institutional memory that has, at many times, been useful.

With a few notable exceptions (abortion, for one) the Senate does not block legislation flat out. It understands its role as a chamber of review, and seeks to improve legislation in ways that are not always popular, but are generally well thought out. It also provides protection for minorities because it is not as vulnerable to the tyranny of the majority (i.e. elections). For instance, while I support the species at risk act wholeheartedly, it's clear that at least some Senators had aboriginal interests at heart when they fought hard for a non-derogation clause.

I'm not saying it's beyond reform (which I agree is hard and can't be done undertaken half heartedly. 'Carving off a few' Senators from Quebec? Not likely), but it's something that has to be thought out hard.

Mark Richard Francis said...

Had a good time last night at the getogether.

I remember downing my third pint as we discussed this very issue.

Getting rid of the upper house I think is a bad idea. Creating any system which leads to pork and gravy is also a bad idea.

The Triple-E senate would lead to that, I'm afraid.

One thing I like about the Amerian model is that the senate has two seats for every state, regardless of population, and the elections are staggered. For Canada, we could ignore the election component and go for an equal regional model based upon appointments. Would forever granting BC the same senate seats as everyone else solve the inequity?

Still thinking on it...

Jeff said...

Steve, I agree that another layer of bureaucray isn't needed and the Senate shouldn't be able to trump the House routinely, but I think they do need to be effective. The question is, effective at what?

Anon, I agree the Senate does serve a limited purpose now. I also think that although their constitutional power is greater they stay within certain limits because they recognize as appointed people they shouldn't routinely trump the will of the elected house.

If we start electing Senators they won't feel constrained any longer and they'll want to flex their muscles. That's why elected Senators must be accomponied, in addition to redistribution, by reform to clearly spell out the Senate's duties and powers. I could see, for example, letting Senators approve judicial and ambasadorial appointments. And perhaps is the Senate turns-down a HoC bill, the HoC could overturn the veto with a 2/3s vote.

We don't want to move too close to the American system though. And really, if it ain't broke...

Jeff said...

It was good to meet you Mark. I'd been planning a Senate post for a few weeks and after debating the topic last night with yourself and others I figured it was time to put something up.

I think if party discipline can still be maintained then we may be able to avoid the pork barell system. After all, it isn't really a problem in the HoC. That is the concern though if you make everything a free vote. How do you push your agenda through. Crack the whip, I say.

On the representation side the same seats to every province may be the way to go. I believe that's what the Charlottetown Accord called for, six elected per province, while reducing the Senate's overall power further.

Anyway, it's a complex issue to say the least.

buckets said...

The Buckets senate is PEW: Proportional, equitable, and Weak.

Senators are distributed by PR from a list in proportion to the share of the vote in the election. 20% of Alberta votes Liberal? That's 20% of the senators.

Equitable? The ON & QC have 24, PEI has four, the others are between according to their proportion of Canada's population:

0-1.5% 4 PEI
1.5-2% 6 Nfld.
2-4% 10 NB
2-4% 10 NS
2-4% 10 Sask.
2-4% 10 Man.
4-10% 12 Alberta
+1% = +1 15 BC
over 20% 24 Que.
over 20% 24 Ont

Senatorial seats are redistributed every census.

Weak. Bills must be initiated in the Commons. They can be delayed by the Senate, but if actually defeated can be passed in the commons if the margin of passage is greater than the senate margin of failure.