There were cheers on June 19, 1990, the day retired Armed Forces general Stan Waters marched onto Parliament Hill to become the first elected senator since Confederation.
“This is (a) historic occasion,” said Waters, a 70-year-old Reformer.
Well, the day may have been historic, but the cheers were short-lived.
Waters died after serving only a year, and subsequent elected senators were left cooling their heels by prime ministers who refused to summon them to the Upper Chamber. Not until 2007, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper appointed Bert Brown, was another elected senator allowed to hold office. A third one, Betty Unger, arrived in January.
These three elected senators are all from Alberta. Saskatchewan and British Columbia are the only other provinces that have passed laws permitting Senate elections, but neither province has yet held one.
But now, a new attempt at Senate remodelling has begun. The federal Conservative government introduced a bill last year inviting provinces to hold Senate elections. Alberta is expected to do just that in conjunction with a provincial election this year. Meanwhile, New Brunswick’s Progressive Conservative government plans to introduce a bill in this session of the legislature to permit the election of senators beginning in 2016.
“The response is looking really good,” says Brown, who has been meeting with various premiers during the past few years, at Harper’s request, to convince them to start electing senators.
There are 105 seats in the so-called chamber of sober second thought.
To be eligible for a prime ministerial appointment, senators must own $4,000 worth of property and be at least 30 years of age. They are forced to retire at age 75, but, under the proposed federal legislation, could serve only one nine-year term.
The annual salary of a senator is $132,200. Each senator also gets to spend $153,120 on his office, including salaries of assistants. Senators living more than 100 kilometres from Ottawa are eligible for an extra allowance of $20,000. The maximum pension is 75 per cent of the annual average income of the best-paid five years. At the current rates of pay, a long-serving senator’s pension would be $99,150.
Generally, senators fall into three categories: key party strategists and bagmen the prime minister wants close at hand (example: Ontario’s Doug Finley, former Conservative campaign director); respected celebrities who have made a mark in some non-political profession (example: retired Army general Romeo Dallaire, who sits as a Quebec Liberal); and former MPs, defeated election candidates and assorted political handmaids (example: Fabian Manning, a defeated Tory from Newfoundland).
Some work hard, participating in debates, committee hearings and, like MPs, helping ordinary people get old age pensions and employment insurance.
Other senators are seen enough only to avoid being fined $250 a day for an unauthorized absence exceeding 22 days. The hours involved are generally fewer than for those of MPs; the pace is slower and the atmosphere less partisan.
So, who would run for an elected Senate?
As the federal minister responsible for democratic reform, Tim Uppal is stickhandling the Senate reform bill through the Commons. Uppal points to senators Brown (a farmer) and Unger (a nurse) as the kind of diverse backgrounds he would like represented in the Senate.
Bruce Hicks, political science professor from Montreal’s Concordia University, notes that Canada’s last experiment with an elected Senate ended badly.
That was in 1841-67, during the days of the United Province of Canada, which comprised what we now call Ontario and Quebec.
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Ontario and Quebec each elected 24 senators then. That system was replaced by an appointed Senate in 1867 because the Fathers of Confederation were unhappy with “the calibre” of people being elected, says Hicks. The best talent apparently ran instead for the Commons, hoping to land cabinet jobs.
“The sort of people who are motivated by a career in political service tend to run for the lower chamber,” says Hicks.
Running for the Senate in the 19th century was also deemed to be expensive because Senate electoral districts were larger than Commons constituencies and involved more travel, advertising and other campaign expenses.
The current federal system allows each province to set up its own rules regarding expense limits.
Brown said the first time he ran for the Senate, in 1989, Alberta’s Conservative party paid the bills — about $250,000 for him to campaign across the province. Nevertheless, Brown lost to Reform’s Waters.
Brown ran again in 1998 as a Reformer and won. Because he was not appointed by a prime minister within six years, he had to run again in 2004.
He won a second time. In those last two campaigns, Brown said he ran “mainly on my good looks,” spending less than $5,000 each time.
Under the planned New Brunswick legislation, the province would be divided into five regions larger than Commons constituencies so candidates would not have to seek votes provincewide, as in Alberta.
Candidates could spend only $25,000, a figure similar to what aspiring MLAs can spend.
Brown likes New Brunswick’s plan. He encourages other provinces to divide themselves into regions. Imagine a candidate in Ontario, having to campaign across the entire province, says Brown; it could be very expensive.
Liberal Nova Scotia Senator Jane Cordy says she thinks people running for an elected Senate would be similar to those now running for the Commons.
That could be problematic.
“I think we would lose a lot of really good senators who would never get involved in the political process,” says Cordy.
She points to such celebrity senators of recent years as Wilbert Keon (an Ottawa heart surgeon) and Tommy Banks (an Edmonton musician) as people who probably would never have run for office, but agreed to be appointed and then served with distinction.
Another Nova Scotia senator, the Conservatives’ Gerald Comeau, supports the federal bill and says he expects a high calibre of candidates, mainly people in their 50s and older, because younger people would be unwilling to interrupt careers for a nine-year Senate stint.
The New Democratic Party wants the Senate abolished and is fighting the reform bill. Elaine Michaud, an NDP MP from Quebec, says a fully elected Senate might feel it has the “legitimacy” to thwart the Commons.
“Senators will have greater legitimacy to introduce bills and block House bills,” Michaud said during Commons debate Feb. 27.
“That could result in American-style impasses pitting two houses of elected representatives with essentially the same decision-making powers against one another in legislative conflicts with no apparent solution.”
Uppal is aware of such scenarios. But the bottom line, he says, is “the status quo of the Senate needs to change” so senators become more “legitimate” by being elected.
And so, the attempt at reform continues.
Waters, the late senator, is no doubt looking down from that Upper Chamber in the sky eagerly hoping another historic day will soon come.