Senate Reform Act gets mixed reviews

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By Chris Morris: Telegraph-Journal—Fredericton

Don Desserud


Premier David Alward says he’s worried that New Brunswick’s voice will become weaker in a federal system where vote-rich Central and Western provinces are getting bigger and stronger.

The solution, he believes, is in electing senators who will have the moral authority to speak and act on behalf of the province’s citizens.

“It will help ensure that New Brunswick has a strong voice in the second chamber, a very important chamber in Ottawa,” Alward says of his government’s decision to proceed with the election of senators.

But there is disagreement as to whether that’s a faint hope or a legitimate expectation in the moderately reformed Senate proposed by the federal Conservatives.

The Senate Reform Act, expected to pass this year, would limit senators to a single nine-year term. It also sets out a system by which provinces and territories can choose to hold elections, with the prime minister required to consider the winner when there is a Senate vacancy in that region.


Perceived as excess baggage

While Alward maintains that the Senate is a “very important chamber,” many Canadians see it as little more than excess baggage. 

Calls continue for its abolition.

“The Senate is the longest-running scandal in Canadian politics, and any reform that stops short of abolition is not worth the paper that it is written on,” University of New Brunswick political scientist Donald Wright says bluntly when asked for his opinion.

But other critics say that if the Senate were to become an elected body, it would gain democratic legitimacy to flex the considerable muscle it has, but rarely uses.

Don Desserud, dean of arts at the University of Prince Edward Island and a longtime political analyst, says elected senators could be powerful regional champions.

They also could find themselves more frequently in the federal cabinet. Desserud says more than 200 years after the Americans decided an appointed Upper House was not the answer, and went with an elected Senate, Canadians are struggling to make a similar fix. 

“People should take a look at the history of the two institutions and come to the realization that when the Americans created their system in the 18th century, they were trying to reform the existing (British) parliamentary system — they weren’t trying to get rid of it,” Desserud says.

“One of the things wrong was having a House of Lords where people inherited their titles. Making it elected was a way of changing that. I think we are at the point, 200 years later, of coming to the same conclusion: that Parliament is not working that well, so let’s fix the things that are wrong with it and one of the things that’s wrong with it is the Senate is unelected.”

Desserud says it is absolutely necessary to find some way to change the system by which senators are appointed.

“It’s ridiculous the way it is now, and it’s an embarrassment that we continue to do this,” he says.

“Whether the method the prime minister has suggested is the right way is open to debate — I think it should be a formal constitutional argument myself. But, regardless, I think the basic argument that says elected senators from Atlantic Canada would have a lot more credibility and therefore would be able to better articulate the issues is correct.”

The Senate Reform Act does not attempt to change the distribution of seats — a sore point in Western Canada where the provinces hold only six seats each. New Brunswick, which has a population of 750,000, has 10 seats in the 105-seat Senate, as does Nova Scotia.

P.E.I. has four seats and Newfoundland and Labrador has six.

But Western and Central provinces are gaining more seats in the House of Commons — hence New Brunswick’s nervousness about its diminishing voice.

Kevin Lacey, Atlantic director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, says the Atlantic provinces should be worried about the imbalance in Parliament and the lessening of their status in Ottawa.

Lacey says when the Maritime provinces signed on to Confederation in 1867, it was with the understanding that there would be a balance between the federal Parliament — which would reflect population, mostly Ontario and Quebec — and the interests of the provinces.

“We have never seen that in Canada because the Senate has never had the moral authority to actually do anything to correct that imbalance,” Lacey says.

“If we can’t reform the Senate, then it should be abolished. It cannot continue the way it is now. But considering that is unlikely to happen, the better scenario for us in the East is to have a Senate that has power for us, that represents our interests and can finally get some things done for our region.”

Lacey says an elected Senate would give the Atlantic provinces new power over federal legislation — a power politically appointed senators have never, or rarely, exercised.

It’s that potential power that scares some critics in the West.

University of Calgary political scientist Tom Flanagan, a former senior Harper adviser, says a Senate dominated by elected easterners would be bad news for the West.

He points out that British Columbia and Alberta, with 24 per cent of Canada’s population but just 12 of the Senate’s 105 seats, are at a distinct disadvantage in the Senate.

That hasn’t been a problem in a toothless, appointed Upper Chamber, but it could be a challenge for the Western provinces if elected Eastern senators start using their muscle to protect their interests.

Flanagan is worried about the impact on Alberta of future votes in the Senate relating to the equalization formula or other economic matters involving revenue-sharing between regions.

“If you look now at the structure of equalization in Canada, there are only three provinces paying in — 

the three, westernmost provinces,” he says.

“So seven are receiving provinces and that would give the East a huge majority of senators. A block of senators from the receiving provinces could really work mischief in the Senate against a government that was trying to pursue some kind of fiscally responsible course. 

“Senators might say, ‘No way, Jose. You have to keep the transfers coming.’”


Court challenges expected

Prime Minister Stephen Harper believes the Senate Reform Act does not cross the threshold of requiring a constitutional amendment, but it is expected to be challenged in court by several provinces.

The federal NDP — the Official Opposition in Ottawa — strongly opposes the act, warning it would create, within the next generation, a complicated system with half the senators appointed and the other half elected.

Chris Dunn, a political scientist at Memorial University in St. John’s, says the changes proposed in the legislation before the House of Commons, do not address a fundamental flaw in the Canadian federal system — the lack of equal representation for the provinces.

“The legislation is constructed in such a way that it wouldn’t change the basic problems in Canadian federalism,’’ Dunn says, noting that Ontario and Quebec would still hold the lion’s share of Senate seats.

Dunn says the Atlantic premiers would be better off seeking true constitutional change involving broad consultation with the provinces.

“It seems to me that if Atlantic Canadian politicians really wanted to protect Atlantic Canada interests, then they would get on the bandwagon for a more thorough Senate reform in which the principle of equality is front and centre.’’


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