In the Chamber -- Grant Mitchell's Blog

New Senators and Senate Reform

Posted 1/17/2012 by Grant Mitchell


I want to congratulate the new batch of 7 Senators and welcome them to this remarkable place. I also want to encourage their reported fervour for reform.

As good as our Parliamentary system is (it is the most successful system of government on the face of the earth today having lasted for literally hundreds of years), it needs to evolve always as it has done successfully over the years.

While electing Senators and limiting them to one term of 9 years duration are alluring politically, they are not without a number of risks which really have not been considered by their advocates:

1. An elected Senate would be inclined to exercise its considerable powers. Every piece of legislation and budget have to be passed by the Senate. If elected, the Senate would be much more inclined to defeat them creating impasses for which there is no mechanism to resolve. We need to create one if we are to avoid grid-lock.

2. An elected Senate flexing it powers will gut the power of the Prime Minister and the House of Commons. Who will be more powerful, for example, 6 Senators in Alberta or the 28 MPs? It will also reduce the power of the Premiers who are now the more significant regional spokespeople. Just look at the stature of the Senate in the US. I am not saying that these shifts in power are good or bad; I am saying that we have not had a debate as Canadians about whether we think they are good or bad.

3. Alberta and other provinces will not gain greater regional power than we have now. In fact, it will be diluted. Alberta has a greater percentage of the seats in the House of Commons than in the Senate now - 9.1% compared to only 5.7%. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick have 10 seats each; Alberta has 6. The Atlantic region has 30 seats; the West has only 24. So, before elected Senators being to exercise their considerable powers, this distribution of seats needs to be revisited.

4. Finally, if Senators are to be elected, why should they only get one term? Why should the electorate not decide how many terms their Senators should get, like with every other elected office in Canada?

 And, of course, there is a real constitutional question as to whether these changes can be made without the consent of the provinces. And, Quebec and possibly other provinces will take this question to the Supreme Court.

So, in the absence of clear answers to these questions, why do we not do some reforms in the Senate that we can actually do ourselves and that will enhance openness and accountability in the way that the Conservatives say they want to.

I think the most important change we could make would be to webcast the proceedings of the Senate Chamber. Senate committee meetings are already televised and webcast, so I see no reason why we cannot at least webcast the Chamber proceedings.  I think webcasting is preferable to televising because it is radically cheaper at about $120,000 to set up and $33,000 per year to run. Not much really for greater openness and accountability.

 The Senate truly does great work. It is unacceptable that Canadians do not have open, modern-day access to it.



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