Ottawa

Senate reform: it's Harper vs. the experts—again

Peter O’Neil of the Vancouver Sun takes an enterprising approach in this story that bids to inject some life into the debate over the federal government’s Senate Reform Act. O’Neil surveyed professors at British Columbia and Alberta universities, and found that 18 of 25 who responded didn’t like the bill, which is now being debated in Parliament.

It’s telling, but not all that surprising, that political science and constitutional law profs don’t much like the government’s plan to limit Senate terms to nine years and set up an oddball system for non-binding elections (future prime ministers wouldn’t have to appoint the winners to the upper chamber, but would presumably face strong pressure to go along with the voters’ picks).

There are two problems likely to trouble academics, and anyone else who pays much attention:

Firstly, the bill does nothing to redress the historic imbalance in the Senate that leaves British Columbia and Alberta with six senators each, while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia get 10 senators apiece, since changing the numbers would require a full-blown constitutional negotiation to get the required agreement of seven provinces representing more than half the population.

Secondly, the bill would ultimately lend senators a hitherto unfamiliar sort of democratic legitimacy, and yet do so without spelling out how the Senate’s relationship with the House of Commons should change, leaving open the question of exactly how powerful senators would eventually become relative to MPs.

When I last reported on this for Maclean’s, I thought David E. Smith, a University of Saskatchewan professor emeritus of political science summed it up nicely:  “They’d be implementing some sort of shadow electoral system. It would help if we could get some sense of what the objective is here. Is it to have a check on the lower chamber? Is it to represent under-represented sections of the country? It’s just not clear.”

In fact, the lack of clarity about how potent the Senate might become and in what areas is regarded by some advocates of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach as a tactical benefit of the bill. O’Neil quotes Canada West Foundation president Roger Gibbins, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, saying, ” “The final outcome is by no means clear, but there is a need for creative destruction.”

Creative destruction? He means the reformed Senate would shift the balance of power in the federal Parliament in an unpredictable way, and thus force a future round of Constitutional negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces in which the details—you know, how Canadians will be governed, that kind of thing—would be sorted out.

Gibbins was a bit more explicit in advocating this back door route to full-blown constitutional reform when I asked him about it back when Harper was first toying with the Senate in 2006. “It’s an argument I’ve always been hesitant to go public with,” he said then. “But the only way you end up with more comprehensive reform is if you destabilize the status quo to the point where Canadians say, ‘This is a mess, and we’ve got to sort this out.’ ”

That’s how we’re going to overhaul our core democratic institutions? No wonder all those B.C. and Alberta professors don’t like what they see. But in Harper’s Ottawa, as we’ve learned, a preponderance of expert opinion against a move is generally seen as grounds for pressing ahead.