By Chris Morris: Telegraph Journal—Saint John, N.B.
As the Senate reform trailblazer in Atlantic Canada, New Brunswick so far is pursuing a lonely path towards the goal of an elected Upper Chamber.
When Premier David Alward announced last October that his Progressive Conservative government would embrace Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Senate Reform Act, there was an expectation that other Atlantic provinces would follow suit.
“New Brunswick is leading the way on this issue,” Conservative Senator Percy Mockler said at the time.
But to date, no other Eastern province has joined New Brunswick on the trek and it barely registers on the radar of the other three provinces in Atlantic Canada.
Alward says he’s not worried about the lack of companionship, although analysts say the greatest benefits of an elected Senate would be for the Atlantic region as a whole rather than individual provinces.
“Look, it is really up to each province to make the decision,” Alward says in an interview.
“From our perspective, we see a shift taking place in the country. We are growing in New Brunswick, but more slowly than most other jurisdictions. We see the redistribution of Parliamentary seats, and we believe the Senate will be much more important for the long term.
“Because of that, it’s important that the Senate be truly reflective of New Brunswickers, and what better way than by being elected.”
Power in the 105-seat Senate is tilted eastward, with Atlantic Canada holding 30 seats: 10 each in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia; four in Prince Edward Island and six in Newfoundland and Labrador. Ontario and Quebec have 24 apiece.
The four Western provinces have just six each, while the three northern territories each have one.
Alward says he’s aware small provinces such as New Brunswick will soon find their voices diluted in the House of Commons, where more seats are being dedicated to the fast-growing Western and Central provinces.
That’s why he wants to strengthen the province’s voice through elected senators.
“It will provide balance for us in Ottawa,” he says.
Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says Alward is right, and the other Atlantic provinces should get on board.
“The region would finally have a really strong voice in a group of people dedicated to protecting the interests of the region rather than political parties that are interested in the major vote centres of Ontario and Quebec,” Lacey says.
Like everything associated with the Senate, reform is moving very slowly, and there’s a great deal of sober second thought.
In New Brunswick, it looks like the earliest opportunity to elect a senator would be in 2016. The province has yet to bring in legislation and the format for Senate elections is still being considered.
Alward says an electoral boundaries commission will start work in the fall redrawing the provincial electoral map. It will look into dividing the province into regions for Senate elections.
“So it will take some time to do it,” Alward says. “There’s a lot of work that has to be done, and there will have to be legislative work as well.”
Under the terms of the Harper government’s Senate Reform Act currently before the House of Commons, provinces would be able to hold elections whenever Senate posts become vacant. The reforms would see senators appointed for one nine-year term, rather than the current rule that allows them to sit until age 75.
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There continues to be more interest in an elected Senate in the West than in the East.
Alberta has two elected senators, and British Columbia and Saskatchewan could send elected senators to the Red Chamber as early as this year.
The cost of Senate elections would be the responsibility of the provinces under the proposed reforms — one of the reasons Newfoundland and Labrador has been cool to the idea.
In Prince Edward Island, Liberal Premier Robert Ghiz is interested in an elected Senate, but like Newfoundland, he’s worried about the additional costs.
“I’m open to discussions on it,” Ghiz says. “If the federal government’s interested in electing senators, it’s something I’ll definitely consider.”
Nova Scotia’s NDP government adamantly opposes the Harper reforms.
Premier Darrell Dexter believes any reform needs to be done through a constitutional amendment supported by the provinces.
Dexter says the Harper reforms are not “a legitimate process” to amend founding constitutional principles.
The 1982 Constitution Act requires that the distribution of Senate seats can be changed only with the support of the House of Commons, plus seven provinces representing more than half of Canada’s population.
The Harper government says its current legislation, which does not change the distribution of seats in the provinces, requires only the approval of Parliament.
Quebec Premier Jean Charest has vowed to launch a constitutional challenge in the event the Senate bill becomes law, which is almost certain to happen within the next year.
Ton Flanagan, a University of Calgary political scientist and former senior Harper adviser, says that with all of the uncertainty, foot-dragging and looming legal action, it could be many years before Senate reform becomes a reality.
“Let’s say we get over all of the legal hurdles, because once the legislation is passed it will probably be challenged in a reference case in Ontario or Quebec, or maybe both, and maybe other provinces as well,” Flanagan says.
“So this thing will go to the courts before any impact is actually felt. But let’s say the legislation survives those hurdles and the courts hold that it is not an illegal constitutional amendment. By then, we’re up to 2014 or something. So, New Brunswick has its first elections, say in 2016, but of course all 10 seats won’t be vacant. They become vacant gradually.
“So, over a period of I don’t know how many years, New Brunswick senators would be replaced by elected senators, and if the other Atlantic provinces went along with it … maybe sometime 15 to 20 years from now you would have a largely elected block of senators from Atlantic Canada.
“So it’s not going to happen all at once, it will be gradual.”
Tuesday: A brief history