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
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
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
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.