Speeches | The Danger of Unintended Consequences - Senate Reform

28 April 2009

 Debates of the Senate (Hansard)

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Senator Mitchell: Honourable senators, I rise to speak to this issue, of course, I am from Alberta and it is perhaps the epicentre of Senate reform. I certainly am not in any way, shape or form opposed to Senate reform, although I want to note that Senator Tkachuk said I was in a letter to the editor in the Edmonton Journal. However, he was wrong and I am sure that was the first time ever. I am actually not opposed to it at all.

However, I would like to state some caution about unintended consequences if we proceed to elect senators without first putting some other things in place.

That, of course, is the gist of the first option that Senator Segal's motion would offer Canadians. That option seems to be simple but it is not. It raises very complex possibilities for complex, unintended consequences. First, as we all know, the Senate has power to veto everything the House of Commons passes including budgets and legislation. As we also know, because we are not elected, we are sensitive about doing that and we do not, in fact, exercise that power as rigorously, as forcefully and in as pointed a way as we might otherwise.

Let us say we became an elected body. We would begin to exercise that power because we would be driven by our electoral responsibilities — by constituents — to do so. If we had not changed those powers, we could literally hamstring and grind the mechanisms of government to a halt.

If we had a majority in the Senate that reflected a majority in the House of Commons, government-to-government, it would be less of a problem than if that was not the case. There are many times in our history where that has not been the case.

The argument that automatically electing senators will somehow make the process more democratic simply does not necessarily follow. It could make it far less democratic because that institution would not be able to respond to the democratic input and pressures from the constituents in this country, the Canadian people.

The second thing, which Senator Brown has often argued, is this: We need an elected Senator because that will be the way we can redress regional imbalances and tensions that have apparently existed over many years. We need to be careful because that is not a panacea by any means.

It is probably not widely known but Alberta actually has a greater percentage of the seats in the House of Commons than we have in the Senate. We have over 9 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons and we have less than 6 per cent of the seats in the Senate. If we were to begin to exercise forcefully our powers because we were elected, what would that do to redress regional imbalance?

Exercising that power would not improve the situation already existing, given the representation we have in the House of Commons. It would exacerbate it. Look at the distribution of seats across this country: the West has 24 seats, Ontario has 24 seats, Quebec has 24 seats, and the Atlantic Provinces have 30. Alberta has 6 seats and British Columbia has 6 seats. Nova Scotia has 10 seats and New Brunswick has 10 seats.

I am not saying we should take away the advantages they have; they have great concerns with regional imbalance. If we begin to elect senators without having worked out a way to break impasses between the two houses and to redistribute seats, then we are not solving the problem, we are exacerbating it.

I believe — not to be too partisan — that the Prime Minister probably knows that an elected Senate cannot happen, but the issue is great divisive politics.

My next point is that there are significant consequences for the structure of power in our parliamentary system and our federal system if we begin to elect senators. For example, suddenly the Prime Minister's power could be virtually gutted. As I indicated earlier, what the Prime Minister wants to do in the other house could be stopped or ground to a halt in this house. We would have a great deal of change in the power held by the Prime Minister.

In addition, there would be a fundamental change in the power of members of Parliament. In Alberta, we have 28 members of Parliament. Each member represents one twenty-eighth of the province, and their constituency is the same, give or take, as a result of distribution. Six senators in Alberta represent the whole province or, if we to distil it down, each senator represents one-sixth of the province. Honourable senators, who do you think would be the more powerful spokespersons? Clearly, it would be the senators.

Look at the situation in the United States. Which is the most powerful political body in the United States? Name four or five members of Congress. I ask people that and they cannot do it. However, most can name four, five, six or ten senators. Do honourable senators know why? The Senate is where the power resides.

That situation raises problems for the provinces. The provincial premiers, currently, are the spokespersons for regional interests. One of our responsibilities is to represent regional and minority interests.

If we exercised our power to represent regional interests more directly and forcefully, where do honourable senators think we would obtain that power? Power is a zero-sum game. We would take it from the premiers.

What would taking the power from the premiers do? No matter how hard senators try not to become "Ottawa-ized," that would inevitably shift the representation of regional interests from the regions or provinces to Ottawa and to this chamber. I am not saying that consideration is overwhelming, but it should be considered before we go ahead with piecemeal elections and not having figured out the rest of these problems.

While I am on this issue, I want to mention the eight-year terms. I do not know whether the new members, in particular, realize this point, but it is much more likely that we will have eight-year terms than that we will have elections. Elections require 7 provinces with 50 per cent of the population to approve such a change and it may be — although I do not necessarily agree — that eight-year terms require approval only of the Parliament of Canada under the Constitution.

An Hon. Senator: Hear, hear.

Senator Mitchell: Thank you. Coming from a lawyer of that of quality, I am rather chuffed about coming to that conclusion.

That situation means we could end up with eight-year terms and no elections. The prime minister would have to appoint every one of the people in this house. All the prime minister would have to do is win two elections to have the opportunity to appoint the entire Senate.

I ask honourable senators to tell me how a Senate that is beholden to a single prime minister offsets the executive power of the House of Commons. Some honourable senators may think it is okay as long as there is a Conservative Prime Minister — although I do not think there will be one for long. However, I am willing to bet those honourable senators will not be happy when Prime Minister Ignatieff is sitting over there and is making those appointments.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: Will Senator Mitchell accept a question?

Senator Segal: My question is two-barrelled. First, in the relationship between the British House of Lords and the House of Commons, there is a protection saying that in any shootout between the two chambers, the House of Commons ultimately wins. There is a power of delay, but the broadly elected legislature wins. Would that give the honourable senator some sense of confidence and comfort about the relationship between the two chambers if one side was elected?

Second, as the honourable senator knows, the motion is about allowing Canadians to express their view. I have no sense of what Canadians will do, and I do not know what first ministers would do after the referendum took place. However, will the honourable senator agree that allowing Canadians to express their view is intrinsically a constructive thing to do in a democracy?

Senator Mitchell: If I can give the honourable senator a quick one-off, I absolutely agree with the honourable senator that Canadians should have a much greater chance to express their views. I know this statement is partisan, but does the honourable senator think the Prime Minister could do a few town hall meetings so Canadians could confront him directly?

Having said that, I agree that solutions to this impasse question are in practice around the world. However, I have a problem with the one Senator Segal mentions in Britain. Britain is not a regional country in the same way as Canada. It has three provinces, but it is not like Canada. Geographically, it is not spread out as much and I think one can argue that the cultural differences are not as spread out.

If the House of Commons in Britain can overrule the House of Lords, the regional implications are less severe and significant. If the House of Commons can overrule the Senate here, we are gutting one of the essential elements and qualities of the Senate, which is to represent regional interests.

Australia has an interesting technique for breaking impasses. If there are two impasses on the same issue, they have an election. I have been an elected representative and I know how elections focus attention. That approach definitely could be something worth thinking about.

We have to put that in order. The concern I have with this kind of referendum — the same as I had with the Canadian Wheat Board referendum — is that it does not clarify the issues adequately. It might create debate. I am not ruling out that possibility at all. It might give more opportunity for people to have input.

However, I think we want to put that process in place as well. There has not been a great dialogue between the honourable senator's government and the people of this country for the past three years.

Hon. Lorna Milne: I was intrigued when Senator Mitchell spoke about the present regional imbalances between the Senate and the House of Commons. Has the honourable senator considered that the real imbalance is for the people of Ontario? Ontario has approximately 33 per cent of the population of Canada and only 23 per cent of the seats here in the Senate.

Senator Mitchell: These kinds of issues arise in a debate like this one. It is probably why these kinds of reforms have not occurred over the history of this country.

I have not seen many questions answered so I am trying to figure out how to have an elected Senate. There is not much precedent on that side of the chamber.

Again, that is why we have to find this sensitive balance between breaking impasses, the relative powers of the two houses, and not losing the ability to equalize regional balances in this house. It is necessary that interests be expressed. They may reflect the interests of fewer people. However, interests have great power and necessity to be heard and expressed.

I will give senators another example of the regional imbalance between rural and urban found in most legislatures. Rural interests are far more significant to our country, culture and economy than are the number of people that hold them. That is why you can argue some legitimacy for having more rural ridings relative to population than urban ridings.

I love Ontario and would like to see Ontarians well represented. In fact, they are well represented: They have a Liberal premier.

Hon. Francis William Mahovlich: Does the honourable senator think that the present Senate is able to represent minorities?

Senator Mitchell: That is the other thing. It is not as though Canadians have not been well represented by the Senate and that they have not received value for money from the Senate. We do not directly exercise our powers as we might if we were elected. In Alberta, there is no elected representative in the caucus, which is a travesty.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: The honourable senator's time has expired. Is he asking for more time?

Senator Mitchell: Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker pro tempore: The honourable senator may have five minutes.

Senator Mitchell: It then pays to have senators who can make the case in caucus and elsewhere on behalf of a province or region. It might be that some senators come from provinces where there are relatively few members of Parliament. For example, Newfoundland and Labrador presents a great case. There are excellent senators on both sides who hail from Newfoundland. They undoubtedly represent and sustain the representation of their province in caucus and in the process of policy-making.

I forget the question, but that would seem to be a pretty good answer.

Hon. Pierrette Ringuette: Honourable senators, minority and gender issues are important parts of the mandate of the Senate.

Does the honourable senator not find it bizarre that for the last three years a number of bills have been introduced to make changes to the Senate in relation to elections or length of term, and at no time has the Prime Minister brought together the provincial premiers and the territorial representatives to talk about the Senate? Does he not think that this is just lip service and that there is no seriousness with regard to making changes?

Senator Mitchell: I agree with the honourable senator. The Prime Minister said he was serious about electing senators and about never appointing them. However, two months later, he appointed senators — some great ones, there is no doubt.

Senator Tardif from Alberta has written on the issue of minorities and the ability to reflect minorities in appointments in this place. The percentage of women is not high enough, but it is much higher than it is in the House of Commons. The percentage of Aboriginals, for example, is higher. People of colour are represented better than they are generally in the House of Commons and francophones as well. That has had an effect. Perhaps the Prime Minister has not found it necessary to meet with the premiers to discuss regional interests because they are so well reflected in the Senate today


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