Just say no, for various reasons

by Aaron Wherry

Stephane Dion explains why Alberta and British Columbia should rejected the Senate Reform Act.

This unbalanced distribution of Senate seats -a historical artifact -is a problem for the two western provinces and an anomaly of our federation; Stephen Harper’s reform would make the situation much worse. In the existing unelected Senate, this problem is mitigated by the fact that our senators play their constitutional role with moderation, letting the elected House of Commons have the final word most of the time. But in an elected Senate, with members able to invoke as much democratic legitimacy as their House counterparts -if not more, since they would represent provinces rather than ridings -the underrepresentation of British Columbia and Alberta would take its full scope and significance.




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Just say no, for various reasons

  1.  Stephen Harper’s western alienation agenda through Senate reform is shameful.

  2. Harper is into some reform, not real reform. 

  3. Go Stéphane go!

    Eventually sound thinking will overcome all the sturm und drang that Harper likes to conjure up to avoid actual fact-based arguments.

    By the way, is anybody able to square Harper’s quest for an “elected” Senate with his unabashed pumping for a foreign-based, unelected sovereign as our head of state?

  4. How seriously is Dion taken out West?  Dion did just recently try to usurp Con government – led by Albertan – with help of a bunch of people from Montreal and Toronto. 

    Dion’s grab for power a couple of years ago could be good example of why people out West might like have second chamber that acts as power against other chamber. 

    • I would have never thought that Westerners want a second elected chamber where they are severely under-represented so that it can usurp power from the HoC.

      • We don’t, which is why Harper’s tinkering won’tfly out here.

    • Harper is a Torontonian. Cheers.

      Is our government in Ottawa a colonial overlord from western Canada?

      If the west wants a second chamber that defends their interests, why cement the fact that they are underrepresented in it?

  5. Short of a constitutional amendment, how can the underrepresentation of AB and BC be remedied?

    • Maybe we should work of the representativeness before we make the Senate powerful. Making it powerful before dealing with regional equity makes it much harder to get stakeholders to agree.

      • So we should change the Constitution to deal with regional inequities in representation before we reform the Senate in any other way?

        • It would be part of a serious Senate reform proposal.  Harper is not serious about this, so of course it isn’t.

        • Well, term limits might be defensible if ill-advised (letting one PM appoint the entire chamber that his successor faces). I think a more meritocratic appointment process to reduce the likelihood of partisan toady appointments would be worthwhile, too. In the mean time, we can work on rectifying regional equity.

          If we make the Senate powerful, it will take a major unity crisis to get any movement on regional equity. Ontario could, for example, ask for federal jurisdiction over resources in exchange for accepting a 60% reduction in its representation. That would be an interesting negotiation.

          • Term limits are totally defensible, IMHO.  Why should a 40 year- old appointed to the Senate enjoy 35 years of job security?  The only way a PM would “appoint the entire chamber” is if he was in power for a very long time.  It’s not so different from the status quo in that respect: Chretien was in power for a decade and he appointed 75 senators.  The term limits would only apply to new senators, not the pre-Harper ones.

            I don’t think we can assume that the Senate would become more powerful just because many of its members would be elected.  I agree that any movement towards regional equity in the Senate (via constitutional change) could open a can of worms, but as a grown-up country this is the sort of conversation we should be having with the provinces.

          • It’s essentially intolerable for the Senate to block legislation now. An elected Senate would have the moral authority to block HoC legislation–otherwise, what’s the point of the Senate? Thus, electing the Senate would necessarily turn it from a largely vestigial organ into a powerful, highly relevant part of our legislative process. Under what scenario can you imagine Senators running on a campaign of rubber stamping what the HoC recommends, regardless of the regional interest?

          • Remind me of the problem(s) that will be rectified by electing senators….

            Same for term limits…

            A good part of the value that the Senate currently adds to our democracy – regardless if that value is low or high – comes from the fact that senators, with their long time horizons, have the opportunity to become quasi-experts, something that few MPs can achieve.

          • Andrew_notPorC, just wanted to retweet a related point that Colby Cosh made:
            Are Senate reformers talking past anti-reformers? Status-quo types fear a gain in “legitimacy”, but what if the reform case is unrelated?

            That is to say, can one believe that the Senate is inherently vestigial & wasteful, but that it should be popularly elected anyway?

            I think if new senators from certain provinces were elected, the change to the Upper House would be more of a gradual evolution in terms of legitimacy and power rather than a sudden transition.  I don’t think the Senate would evolve to resemble a mini-House of Commons.  I also don’t think that Senate candidates would be “campaigning” in the same sense that MP candidates campaign.  It would be more like a byelection/job application process where candidates are considered based on their merits rather than their promises.  Maybe I’m being idealistic here, but I don’t think a gain in legitimacy is something to be feared.

          • Phil, I think your point about long time horizons and gaining expertise is entirely valid, at least for many senators (the “good” ones).  However, it still rankles that the useless senators enjoy unchallenged job security.  It’s certainly a trade-off.

            I’m going to have to study this issue more closely and get back to you.

          • However, it still rankles that the useless senators enjoy unchallenged job security.

            Completely agree with that sentiment.

            And if ridding ourselves of useless senators is the primary driver for change (ie electing senators) I do wonder if there isn’t some better method out there to rid ourselves of those useless senators.

            Perhaps we could use the approach that (I’m told) some car and furntirue dealers use:  peridodcially fire the bottom X% (of the sales staff).  This could be done democratically, with some sort of a reverse ballot if you will.  That way we could keep the benefits gained as capable senators gain expertise.Btw, do you have a sense of how widespread this phenomena of useless senators is?  Based on my viewing of Senate committees and other CPAC offerings, I would venture that there area actually very few (about 5) senators who are not adding enough value – for the most part I’ve been very impressed by some senators, and moderately impressed by the rest.

            And relative to your higher level post, is it regional balance that you want in the Senate, or provincial balance?  Because the regional balance is actually pretty reasonable as it is, no?

    • If  Quebec remains at 75 seats (105K per riding), Ontario should have 125, BC 43, Alberta 35, and the rest should remain unchanged (as per agreed upon minimum seats when those provinces entered Confederation.  Sask would have 4 extra seats, Man 3, NS 2, NB 3, PEI 3, and of course each territory would get 1).  The grand total would be 335 seats.  Perhaps legislation should be brought forward that adds seats to juridictions with high growth rates in the event of mid-census elections?  Those growth rates are measurable, after all.

  6. Hey, Dion stole one of my arguments. How dare he?

  7. The most logical solution to Dion’s problems, then, would seem to be just cutting Quebec’s representation by 2/3 or so and keeping the rest of the institution as-is. I wonder if he’d be up for that kind of constitutional change…

    • PEI has 4 Senators, B.C. has 6 – is that equitable to you?

    • If you want to go by population, the Senate should contain this mix (assuming we hold it close to the current 105 seats):
      ON 41 (currently 24)
      PQ 24 (currently 24)
      BC 14 (currently 6)
      AB 14 (currently 6)
      MN 4 (currently 6)
      SK 3 (currently 6)
      NS 3 (currently 10)
      NB 2 (currently 10)
      NL 2 (currently 6)
      PE 1 (currently 4)

      plus one for each territory.

      Quebec is not overrepresented at all, currently, so I don’t know why you think they should lose 2/3 of their representation.  All of the overrepresentation is in the Atlantic Provinces, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan.  Ontario, BC, and Alberta are all severely underepresented.  That said, many Senators don’t represent their regions at all.  They are there simply to represent He Who Appointed Them (be that Harper, Chretien, Martin, or Mulroney).  I wonder how many PE Islanders consider Mike Duffy “their” representative?

    •  So your solution is to reduce the seats of the only province that is basically appropriately represented in the Senate?!?!?  Leave all the provinces that are insanely overrepresented the same, and all the provinces that are underrepresented the same, and just take some seats away from Goldilocks???

      That’s crazy.

  8. All regions of Canada must be represented in both the House of Commons and in the Senate (as long as we have one) equally, based on population. To have less populous areas having greater representation than more populous areas is not democratic.

  9. There are a lot of folks here who are offering criticism, but few are offering solutions. To achieve real Senate reform would require a constitutional amendment. I don’t see a huge amount of support in Ontario, Quebec, or the eastern provinces for this. As a matter of fact, there might never be the possibility for it to become entirely ‘equal’. Why would any province give up a huge advantage that it has.

    As far as the possibility of the Senate becoming much more powerful, I think that is over blown. First of all, the do not have to be elected – it will be a choice of a province. Also, it will still be up to the PM to appoint them. Seeing as how few people even vote for their MP’s, I would predict that there will be fewer people voting for their Senators.It is a chamber of sober second thought, but the real power still lies with the House. If a PM really wants, he can ask a province to hold another election, if he really doesn’t want to appoint someone that they have elected. The Senate will never be the ‘equal’ of the house, as they will never be ‘truly’ elected to he position.

    All Harper did was create a system where the provinces may elect their senators. This diminishes the PM’s ability to ‘stack the senate’, so in that sense, it gives them more credibility.

    All that Harper did was realize the the triple E thing was never going to happen, and he figures this is the next best thing.

  10. Does anybody know how one of these senatorial elections are going to work? Let’s say there are three Ontario senate vacancies. Does each party trot three candidates out? Does everybody in Ontario vote for these people? Could I vote for say, one Conservative, one Liberal and one NDPer? Would there be new senatorial districts? 

    These are some of the niggling little details that make it hard for me to like or dislike senate reform. Nobody seems to know exactly how the effin’ thing is going to work.

  11. Suddenly all the people who think there need to be more checks and balance[s] on the PM (ie. on Parliament, since the PM mostly controls its agenda and output) have vanished…

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