N.L. senators weigh in on Senate reform

Andrew Robinson
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Of the six Newfoundland and Labrador senators representing the province in Ottawa, at least three are in favour of reforms to create an elected Senate.

Liberal Senator George Baker and his Conservative counterparts, Senator Elizabeth Marshall and Senator Norman Doyle, would all like to see members of the Senate elected, which is one of the suggested reforms in a government bill making its way through the House of Commons.

Bill C-7, known as the Senate Reform Act, was introduced for first reading last summer and is now in its second reading in the House of Commons. It would see provinces voluntarily hold elections for senators, who would be limited to nine-year terms.

Two Alberta senators - Senator Bert Brown and Senator Betty Unger - were appointed after winning separate Senate nominee elections.

Currently, members of the Senate are appointed by the prime minister and can remain there until the age of 75. One of Newfoundland and Labrador's representatives in the Senate, Ethel Cochrane, is due to reach that milestone in September.

Baker believes the Senate, in its present state, operates as it should on day-to-day business. He joined the Senate 10 years ago, shortly after retiring from 28 years as a member of Parliament for the Gander area.

"It amends legislation," he said of the Upper House, offering an example of the recent crime bill, C-10. The Senate sent the bill back to the House of Commons with eight amendments, some of which were informed by presentations made to the legal and constitutional affairs committee, which Bakers sits on.

"It corrected the bill simply because the witnesses who presented evidence to the committee in the Senate were listened to by the senators, whereas they weren't listened to in the House of Commons."

Public demand

Baker said he has always been of the opinion the Senate should be elected, because that's what the public wants.

"It is very difficult to explain, even to some political scientists, the rationale against (an elected Senate)," he said, noting it would be important for Senate candidates to have an adequate understanding of the law.

He said the Senate does not operate to deal with constituency matters as members of Parliament do.

"It's pure duplication if you have two houses that do the same thing," he said.

Marshall has been a senator for two years following a lengthy career in the provincial public sector - including 10 years as the province's auditor general - and a stint in the House of Assembly.

"I see it working well," said Marshall, who is also in favour of having an elected Senate. She supports nine-year term limits.

"I support the reforms that are currently before the House of Commons. ... Right now, we're appointed on the advice of the prime minister, and I think it would be more democratic if the senators were elected."

She would expect the public to elect senators they feel would best represent them.

"Obviously I support democracy, and I have great respect for the people's decisions, so I would leave it up to them."

Doyle, a former elected representative both provincially and federally, was appointed to the Senate in January. Like Baker, he believes the Senate works well in giving government bills a second look, and has an effective committee system - he sits on the transport committee.

"It's a lot more busy than I thought it would be, and very interesting, I must say."

Doyle favours an elected Senate.

"I would, yes. I think that's the will of government now, to see senators elected."

Doyle said it appears the public wants Senate elections, and given its work scrutinizing bills, he believes it's fair for the public to have a say in who serves in the Senate.

"You'd have a certain amount of accountability to the people, and I think that can only be good."

Wrong to abolish

To abolish the Senate would leave Canada without a body of government to offer sober second thought, according to Baker.

"If you don't have the Senate, then you've got to have a group of people there to do exactly that same function," he said.

Baker would also like to see the 45-minute question period eliminated from the Senate.

Senator Marjory LeBreton holds a cabinet-rank position as Leader of the Government and answers questions on its behalf during question period.

"I think this, personally, is a total waste of time and a waste of taxpayers' money. It should be discontinued simply because it goes against the purpose of the Senate - it makes the Senate political. The Senate is not supposed to be political."

If the Senate were to become an elected body, Baker worries that might open the door to a debate on electing judges in Canada, as is done in the United States.

"It will destroy the Charter. It will destroy as it has in the United States and lead to real miscarriages of justice in the judications that are made there - especially in criminal law."

Whatever changes may come to the Senate, Baker hopes its members avoid voting along party lines. Though he acknowledged there are senators who operate that way, Baker said many do not vote based on the party he or she represents.

"There are many of us who do not vote along party lines but according to the common sense in whatever is before the chamber," he said.

"You have to go to an elected Senate, but then you have to structure it so that it will maintain some sort of semblance of independence from party lines or you will have continual obstruction of legislation."

The offices of senators Cochrane, George Furey and Fabian Manning were contacted by The Telegram.

Those senators could not be reached for comment.

arobinson@thetelegram.com Twitter: TeleAndrew


Organizations: House of Commons, Upper House, Charter

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Ottawa, Alberta Gander Canada United States

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Recent comments

  • Fred Penner
    March 25, 2012 - 17:35

    Senators should be elected. Further, anyone who is elected to public office should be qualified to function in that capacity by virtue of their training. For example, a minister of industry should be an engineer, the minister of finance should be trained in economics, etc....all politicians should be educated in ethical theory.

  • seanoairborne
    March 25, 2012 - 12:14

    An elected senate is a fair way to give the provinces an equal say in how federal tax dollars are doled out and the country governed.Here in the USA our senators are considered equal no matter how small the state is and cannot be buffaloed by the federal Gov. They have an equal vote with the larger states and can pass or quash a bill by majority vote for or against said bill.Right now Canada has a rubber stamp senate.They don't truly represent the people.They represent themselves.You ought to make the senate a true senate by choosing 2 or 4 senators per province that have an equal say in the passing of federal bills no matter how big or small the province they represent.That would put the kabosh on provinces like Quebec that get whatever they want like spoiled brats if they don't get their way.And the larger provinces can't buffalo the smaller ones since they are equally represented.As far as partisan politics go that will always be with you whether you have a triple A senate or not.But a senate that truly represents the average Joe can only make Governing the country much fairer for all!