Why the Liberals should back Canadian Senate reform .. but of course they wont

Feb 13th, 2007 | By | Category: Ottawa Scene

In the continuing strange universe of Canadian federal politics a Leger poll of 1,500 voters from January 30 to February 4 has now shown 38% Conservatives and 31% Liberals. A “Leger poll two weeks earlier had put the Conservatives at 35% and the Liberals at 32%.” If this kind of trend settles in, Stephane Dion’s new Liberal team will be in a bit of trouble. The refurbished green Grits need more than strong policies on the environment, as important as that is. One very bold option would be to cunningly back Stephen Harper’s current plans for step by step Senate reform, with certain conditions. That would give the new Dion Liberals a few things they lack at the moment, and show they know how to steal from the enemy for the larger public good too. But it can’t possibly happen in the real world? Right? (ED. UPDATE FEB 20: And now Stephane Dion has almost proved the point.)

Whatever else, “it’s the right thing to do” …

On February 6, in “what was billed as a mini-speech from the throne” (though delivered to the Canadian Club in Toronto), “Prime Minister Stephen Harper unveiled his key priorities … promising tax cuts, a remedy to the so-called fiscal imbalance and Senate reform.”

The Senate reform Mr. Harper has in mind at the moment is just the beginning of a longer-term democratic renovation of an institution he himself has aptly called “a 19th century relic.” The unreformed Senate of Canada today is an at best obsolete blend of the 19th century US Senate and the 19th century British House of Lords.

It ought to have been reformed or at least abolished long ago, from any remotely sane and sensible point of view. (And even allowing that there are some distinguished members of the Senate of Canada today – the Conservative Hugh Segal, appointed by a Liberal prime minister, quickly jumps to mind, e.g. – and that the institution is not totally bereft of what limited integrity is possible in its twisted historic circumstances.)

Viewed broadly, there has been a debate about Senate reform in Canada since about a decade after the 1867 confederation. In its present more or less exact form the current debate has been going on since the early 1980s. For many Canadians, it continues to be mysterious and slippery.

It is at least clear, however, that democratic Senate reform remains a near-great cause for Western Canadian populism – and its outposts in Atlantic Canada, and even Ontario and the far North – as well as certain strains in the quiet broader movement for contemporary Canadian democratic reform.

Surprising majorities of Canadian voters tell opinion pollsters that the present appointed Senate, e.g., should be democratically elected. Even voters in Ontario (especially in what is nowadays rather whimsically called “rural” Ontario), will tell you face to face that while they may not know or even care much about Senate reform, they do believe “it’s the right thing to do.”

Why shouldn’t the Liberals back Harper’s two bills?

You can’t finally get to the bottom of the Senate reform issue without formally re-opening the wounds of the great Canadian constitutional syndrome (remember the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords in the late 1980s and early 1990s – ugh?).

Virtually no Canadian politicians want to do this at the moment, even if growing numbers may concede that it probably will have to be done at some point down the road. But Stephen Harper has now put two early “steps” in the right direction before the Parliament of Canada. They can, in the estimation of “Canada’s new government” at least, get the ball rolling without rancorous and destructive federal-provincial constitutional conflict.

A bill to limit the terms of Senators to eight years (they currently serve from their appointment by the prime minister of the day until they reach the age of 75) had 1st Reading in the Senate itself on April 30, 2006. The Conservatives are now rather cutely complaining that the current unelected Liberal majority in the Senate is stalling this bill.

A second bill to hold “consultative elections” to advise the prime minister of the day on future Senate appointments (or Senate elections by a back door, that does not require federal-provincial constitutional amendment, if you like) had 1st Reading in the Canadian House of Commons on December 13, 2006. As Prime Minister Harper told the Canadian Club on February 6, he is hoping (nudge-nudge, wink-wink) for further progress on this bill over the next few months.

Some among Mr. Harper’s opponents say all this is just electoral gamesmanship. And they urge that Senate reform is not the kind of “ballot issue” that can make the game work in any case. Yet it does seem that substantial numbers of voters, when prodded, vaguely think Harper’s current step by step plans are “the right thing to do.” And he is getting some kind of credit for his high-minded boldness in the rising democratic consciousness of the diverse Canadian people.

As matters stand as well, it seems Mr. Harper can credibly claim that if you really want to see some progress on the democratic reform of the obsolete Canadian Senate, at long last, you will have to give him a majority government in the next election. (Right now, e.g., none of the opposition parties in the House seem too likely to support his minority government on “Bill C-43 … An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate.”) Stephane Dion’s new Liberal team could at least discredit this claim by announcing that they will support both Government bills on Senate reform now before Parliament, in the interests of broad non-partisan democratic reform – and under certain conditions.

Can the federal Liberals afford (not?) to get the Ontario and Quebec provincial governments off their back?

In the past the federal Liberals have argued that while Senate reform could be important eventually, it can’t be done “piecemeal,” as Mr. Harper’s current step by step plans envision. Interested Canadians must wait until the time is ripe for fresh federal-provincial constitutional dialogue on the thorniest details. But this has been read by many who are interested as a sign that the Liberals are not really serious about acting on the issue – now or perhaps ever.

Most recently, there have also been strong negative noises about Prime Minister Harper’s current Senate reform plans from the provincial governments of both Ontario and Quebec. And it could be argued that this makes it altogether impossible for the new Dion federal Liberal team to entertain any fresh thoughts about backing Harper’s plans as a matter of cunning political strategy. But this just plays into regionalist stereotypes that continue to hurt the Liberals in Western Canada – and even such places as “rural” Ontario.

From one angle, Senate reform is ultimately supposed to offset the perpetual majority influence of the 62% of the Canada-wide population in Ontario and Quebec, in a House of Commons that is more or less based on representation by population. More than anything else, perhaps, a reformed Senate would still provide some enhanced “regional representation” in federal institutions, for the vast Canadian geography outside Ontario and Quebec. And, logically enough, the provincial governments of Ontario and Quebec are never going to love this concept.

The once popular ultimate Alberta concept of “Triple E” Senate reform – with equal representation in a reformed Senate for each province (on the model of Australia and the United States) – has raised a fundamental constitutional issue in Quebec as well. Especially nowadays, both federalists and sovereigntists seem to agree that, whatever else, Quebec is “not a province like the others.” A provincially equal reformed Senate would suggest that it is.

Somewhat similarly, especially Premier Dalton McGuinty’s present-day Ontario, concerned to stress that it includes almost 39% of the Canada-wide population all by itself, has trouble seeing how it is altogether equal to the, e.g., 0.4% of the population in Prince Edward Island.

In fact, the past quarter century of public debate actually has made some things clearer than they used to be on this front. Oil-rich Alberta already has more than 10% of the Canada-wide population, and is growing rapidly. It does not really have much logical interest in a provincially equal Senate – in which the six least populous (and less wealthy) of the country’s 10 provinces, which together account for less than 15% of the Canada-wide population, would have a majority of seats. (And could thus theoretically control the institution, and press for still greater equalization payments from such wealthy provinces as Alberta and Ontario).

Some of this logic also appears to have made an impression on even such Western populists and once confirmed Alberta Triple E Senate reformers as the entrepreneurial farmer Bert Brown, who once cut his neighbour’s barley fields to read “EEE” from the air (for “elected, equal, and effective”). Rumor has it that even Mr. Brown now appreciates how stronger regional representation for the majority of Canada’s vast geography outside Ontario and Quebec in a reformed Senate does not have to – and cannot realistically – mean equal provincial representation. (Exactly what works in Australia and the United States will not work in the rather different circumstances of Canada.)

As a practical matter, at any rate, none of this has anything to do with Mr. Harper’s two Senate reform kick-off bills, now before the Parliament of Canada. These leave the question of exactly how to reform provincial representation in the Senate for the future. They deal only with reducing Senators’ term of office to eight years, and with setting a process in place by which all future prime ministerial Senate appointments are guided by what amount to popular elections.

Were both bills to pass, it is no doubt true enough that over the next decade or so the Senate of Canada would gradually evolve into an effectively elected body. And this kind of Senate is bound to become increasingly more influential in the Ottawa corridors of power than it is now. Some say this would be dangerous, without first reforming the Senates’s current provincial representation. But dangerous to who? Certainly not, in any definitive way, to Ontario or Quebec.

The present unreformed Senate of Canada is already organized around an earlier (if now also obsolete) concept of regional representation. This divides Canada into four regions – Ontario, Quebec, the Atlantic Maritime Provinces, and Western Canada – and gives each region 24 Senate seats. The concept was muddied somewhat when Newfoundland and Labrador finally joined confederation in 1949, and was given an additional six Senate seats (meaning that today’s Atlantic Canada all together now has 30 seats, instead of just 24). It was subsequently muddied again when Canada’s present territories were each given a seat as well.

As matters stand, Ontario and Quebec together now have 46% of the seats in the Senate, as opposed to not quite 59% of the seats in the House of Commons. In theory an increasingly somewhat more influential effectively elected Senate of this sort would somewhat diminish the reputed influence of Ontario and Quebec on the federal scene – but certainly only modestly. (And Dalton McGuinty might want to tell you that the current influence of at least the Ontario provincial government in Ottawa is largely mythical in any case.)

The province most unfairly disadvantaged by the present provincial representation in the Senate of Canada is almost certainly British Columbia. Like every other Western Canadian province, it currently has only six seats – even though it now has more than 13% of the Canada-wide population. Some in BC have raised doubts about Mr. Harper’s two current Senate reform bills on this ground. (There is even a recent Senate committee report that addresses the question of greater representation for BC and the other Western provinces, though this would require a federal-provincial constitutional amendment that still seems unlikely for the moment.) But more ardent BC Senate reformers still seem to appreciate that gradually turning the Senate into an effectively elected body is a good first step towards the kind of reform that will finally update provincial representation in a more rational, equitable, and politically workable way.

Adding some uniquely Liberal amendments to Bill C-43?

It is also possible to argue that by backing the Harper minority government’s two initial Senate reform bills currently before Parliament, the new Dion Liberal team would only be enhancing the prestige of the new minority Conservative federal regime – whatever else it might do for the interests of broad non-partisan democratic reform in Canada today. Yet this prospect could arguably be reduced to almost zero, if the Liberals were to attach certain conditions to their support of the two bills.

To start with, the Liberals could make altogether clear that their support is contingent on some form of explicit recognition that strictly equal provincial representation on the old Alberta Triple E (or the Australian or US) model is off the table for all further reforming steps down the road. They could even spell out that an ultimate reformed Senate of Canada must recognize how Quebec – by virtue of its francophone majority and its old French or Roman civil law (as opposed to English common law) tradition – is “not a province like the others.”

(The Liberals might endorse, e.g., two related points addressed in the current Senate’s own recent report on ultimately reforming provincial representation in a federal-provincial constitutional amendment. The report noted that: “John Whyte, Senior Policy Fellow, Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy … reminded the Committee that the need to preserve something close to Quebec’s traditional 25% legislative representation had been a major source of discussion during the Charlottetown negotiations, and portrayed this as a continuing sensitivity.” And it pointed out as well that: “The Hon. Benot Pelletier, Minister Responsible for Canadian Intergovernmental Affairs, Government of Quebec” reaffirmed “Quebec’s traditional opposition to any change which would reduce its existing proportion of seats in the Senate.”)

Beyond all this, there are some intriguing similarities between the longstanding need for democratic reform of the Senate of Canada, and an increasingly apparent and recognized need for democratic reform of the office of Governor General of Canada, which now serves as the country’s “de facto head of state.” This past September 2006, e.g., Maclean’s magazine published an editorial entitled “It’s time to vote for the Governor General.”

In the event that the Canadian people wanted to finally vote for their de facto head of state themselves – as the people of Ireland have done, discreetly but quite successfully, in their parliamentary democracy on the same model as Canada, for the past 70 years – Mr. Harper’s plans in “Bill C-43 … An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate” could be adapted quite nicely to future prime ministerial appointments of Governor Generals as well as Senators.

In this spirit, the Liberals might, e.g., even propose an amendment to Bill C-43, such that it would be somewhat renamed “An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate and the Office of Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada.” And they could make their support for the Conservatives’ Senate consultations contingent on Conservative support for Governor General consultations on the same broad model – in the grand tradition of the party that has already given Canada its own Citizenship Act, distinct from the old “British subjects” (1947), its own flag, distinct from the old Union Jack (1965), and its own domestically amendable constitution with its own Charter of Rights (1982).

Whether Mr. Harper’s Conservatives could buy quite this kind of deal is an interesting question in its own right. But by proposing something like it the new Dion Liberal team could arguably enough at least do both itself and its country some good – as it struggles with a Conservative leader who is certainly smarter than the average Canadian federal politician.

It may prove to be that Mr. Harper, as his critics suggest, is overestimating the popular potency of Senate reform as a practical political issue. It may also be, as many of the same critics often urge, that the broader issue of democratic reform of assorted obsolete Canadian institutions today only really interests university professors and policy wonks. But there have been many surprises in Canadian federal politics lately. It could finally be too that the Liberals are now making the same kind of mistake about the vaguely popular cause of democratic reform that the Conservatives were making this time last year about the environment.

In any case, of course, it does seem virtually certain at the moment that the new Liberal team is still not quite ready to seriously dig into anything remotely like backing Stephen Harper’s initial plans for step by step Senate reform, with conditions, as a matter of cunning political strategy.

There are no doubt assorted good and bad reasons for this. There are certainly those who believe that the best Senate reform strategy is just to abolish the Senate – as the old “upper chambers” in a number of provinces were abolished long ago. (And this does makes some sense, except it does nothing to even try to abate and ameliorate the all too obvious and longstanding problems of acute regionalism in the Canadian federation, even setting aside the most obvious difficulties in Quebec – in a more regionally representative and effective reformed federal Senate.)

The one key reason for this continuing wimpy Liberal approach (or non-approach) to Senate reform, in the minds of many in Western Canada and elsewhere, is that the federal Liberals are still entirely too focused on the narrow interests and attitudes of Ontario and Quebec.

This may not be at all as apt an assessment as those who make it most often imagine. It may even be almost altogether wrong. (Though it is certainly true that most of the recent federal Liberal leadership candidates were from Ontario, and the candidate who finally won is from Quebec.) But it is what too many Canadian people still think. And that is no doubt finally why, in a somewhat more ideal Canada from coast to coast to coast than the one we still have just yet, M. Dion’s new Liberal team actually would start backing some version of Senate reform (along with perhaps various other wider democratic reforms), and prove them all wrong.


UPDATE: According to a Canadian Press report on February 14: “Stephane Dion says the Liberals will back term limits of 12 to 15 years for senators, bringing the first modest step toward reforming Canada’s Senate closer to reality.

“The newly minted Liberal leader’s decision breaks an impasse in the Senate, where the Liberal majority has been dragging its feet on Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s bill to limit senators to eight-year terms.

“However, Dion made it clear today his party won’t budge in its opposition to a separate bill proposing the election of senators.

“After meeting with Liberal senators, Dion said they have now agreed to support Harper’s term limit proposal in principle.

“However, Liberals will then propose amendments, to increase the term to at least 12 years and to ensure that no senator may be reappointed for a second term.

“He said the eight-year term proposed by Harper is too short and would potentially give the prime minister “exorbitant power” to appoint every single senator in the chamber.”

Subsequent reporting (as of February 20) has suggested the Liberals and Conservatives in the Senate may compromise at a 10-year term.

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