In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

Senate Reform Update

Posted 8/18/2010 by Grant Mitchell


On May 5, 2009, I published a blog on this site that outlined my thinking at that time on the Conservative’s Senate reform proposals. I have been giving further thought to these ideas and wanted to do an update for this blog.

I had argued last year that while reform was in order (if not inevitable), we had better be careful to consider possible unintended consequences (i.e. be careful what you wish for; you might just get it). My arguments were then and remain:

1. Because the Senate has to approve all legislation and budgets before they come into law, an elected Senate, freed from the constraint of not wanting to overturn the work of the elected House of Commons, could completely hamstring government. So, before electing, we might want to work out a way to break impasses between the two Houses of Parliament.

2. Electing Senators will not redress regional imbalance and grievance in the way that many people, Albertans in particular, think it will. Once elected, Senators will exercise their considerable powers on the basis of the current seat allocation which sees Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with 10 seats each compared to the Western provinces with 6 each, and the Atlantic region with 30 seats compared to the other three regions with 24 each.

3. Electing Senators will cause a massive shift of power from the Prime Minister, from the House of Commons and from provincial Premiers to the Senate. As elected Senators they can (and they will) hold up legislation and budgets which will diminish the power of the House of Commons. Since there are, for example, only 6 Senators in Alberta compared to 28 MPs, they will have more prominence and the power that goes with it. When elected, Senators will more aggressively exercise their role in representing regional rights and will take the power to do that from where it resides now, with the Premiers. I often ask people to name 5 members of the US House of Representatives, 5 Governors and then 5 US Senators. For most, it is way easier to name Senators than either Governors or a Congress Person. That’s because the US Senate, elected as it is, is the most powerful institution in US government.

I now have several new considerations to add to these arguments:

1. If the government wants to elect Senators, why would they limit them to just one term of 8 years? This limitation is not the case with any other elected office in Canada. And, clearly, that is because the electorate can limit a representative to however many terms they choose. Democracy would dictate deferring to the electorate. Or, is the government going to propose limiting the terms of MPs? Moreover, it is said that this reform is necessary to enhance accountability. But how is anyone accountable if they never get to run again and answer to the electorate?

2. There is no evidence that there will be real integrity in the electoral process. Clearly, many, if not all provinces, will have nothing to do with it. If they do, there is no evidence of any rigorous effort to ensure consistency in how elections are run. It was striking that Alberta, the only province to ever hold an election, decided not to hold the one scheduled for 2010. Why? It would seem that the provincial government is afraid that a Senate election would be won by the popular new party, the Alberta Wildrose Party.

3. It is not clear that there is an actual obligation for the Prime Minister to appoint the winner of a Senate election. For example, if the seats were tied 52 Conservatives to 52 Liberals, but the winner were a Liberal, would a Conservative Prime Minister hand a Senate majority to the opposition? And vice versa?

4. What about election financing? A candidate for MP can spend in the order of $80,000 for an election. There seems to be no limits placed on Senate election financing. Imagine this example. In Alberta there are 28 MP ridings. Since each Senator would represent the whole province, would they be allowed to spend 28 times the normal limit for one MP riding? That would suggest a limit of almost $1,800,000. If that is the case, will that not skew elections to those elites who have access to networks with money? Or, given the size of Senate constituencies (which in most cases is an entire Province), will the limit of $1,100 per donor be reasonable to allow them to raise enough to mount a reasonable campaign. Why has the government not considered/announced financing rules?

5. There is also a potential disadvantage against rural candidates and issues in favour of urban ones. For example, who will have the better chance based on name recognition alone, a former mayor of a big city or the former mayor of a small town? Where will the campaigning likely focus? Probably in populations centers where people can be most easily reached and this will tend to elevate urban issues.

I believe that there is room for reform. It has to be properly thought out however and should of necessity involve direct discussions with the provinces. In the meantime, there are some reforms that are easy and will open the Senate up to public scrutiny and greater accountability. I am speaking of bringing the digital age to the Senate.

1. All sessions of the Senate should be webcast live, if not televised. Committee meetings are televised now although not at particularly enviable times. Webcasting would mean that anyone could see sessions live. This does not have to be very costly, but would allow Canadians to see what the Senate does, and to provide their comments and advice on that.

2. All video records of the Senate could then be archived and made “searchable” so Canadians could see them later and use them for research. Whether people want to believe it or not, there is tremendous work done by Senators who have lifetimes of expertise and experience.

3. Specialized, issue based web sites can be set up (this is just starting) to not just inform the public about given issues, but to seek their input on it. The Senate Committee on Energy, Environment and Natural Resources is setting up such a web site on the Canadian Energy Strategy study that they are doing.

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