A proportionally representative Senate
By Bill Phillips
Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s solution to age-old issue of what to do with the Sentate is a crafty one – to say the least.
Harper announced this week that there will be a moratorium on appointing new senators and, given that there are 22 vacancies in the 105-member Senate, it seems Harper has been exercising a de facto moratorium on appointments to the Red Chamber.
Given the recent scandal-plagued track record of Harper appointees, it’s not surprising he’s a little gun shy when it comes to naming new Senators. However, with the election this fall, Harper is wise not to be making any Senate appointments this year, especially now heading into the election home-stretch. Right now it wouldn’t matter who was appointed to the Senate, he would be accused of electioneering, blatant partisanship, and cronyism … even if he appointed a passel of Liberals and New Democrats.
So it’s best to leave the Senate alone … for now. Should Harper win another majority, then all bets are off.
The other piece of crafty politicking on Harper’s point was to do what the federal government has been successfully doing for generations … download it onto the provinces.
The prime minister can do some tinkering with the Senate, but any real, substantive change, such as NDP leader Thomas Mulcair’s promise of abolishing it, requires a Constitutional change. And that, requires the support of the provinces. The hard lessons learned by prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney obviously haven’t been lost on Harper. Trudeau had to go behind Quebec Premier Rene Levesque’s back to ratify the Constitution in 1982 and the Meech Lake Accord, which was designed to do what Trudeau couldn’t, bring Quebec in, died an ignoble death.
So Harper, being the crafty guy he is, has changed tactics. Rather than try to get the provinces to agree on a Constitutional amendment to either reform or abolish the Senate, he has told the provinces to hammer something out first. He knows, or at least history suggests, that it is no-win proposal for the federal government to try and line up the provinces. It’s kind of like herding cats. But if those cats come to Ottawa already in a line, Bob’s your uncle.
It’s a crafty move and it allows Harper a comeback every time someone asks him what he’s going to do about the Senate … it’s up to the provinces.
The only catch is I don’t know how keen the provinces are about throwing resources into what is essentially federal jurisdiction. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall seems to be Harper’s buddy these days, so maybe he’s going to lead the charge at a provincial level. Good luck, he’ll need it.
The moratorium on appointing senators is also an interesting idea. While Constitutional amendment may be needed to abolish the Senate, the jury’s out on whether the prime minister can simply not replace senators who leave … as Harper is currently doing.
It would take successive prime ministers decades to completely eliminate the Senate by attrition. Vancouver lawyer Aniz Alani believes the prime minister can simply not replace senate vacancies and has launched a Constitutional challenge of Harper’s non-appointments. It’s how Mulcair thinks he can abolish the Senate because anyone seeking the prime minister’s job thinking it can be done with the waive of the prime ministerial hand hasn’t been paying attention for the past 30 years. Even Harper’s attempts to re-jig the senate with term limits have been rebuffed by the Supreme Court of Canada.
So what should we do with the Senate?
If we provinces don’t agree on abolishing it or changing the process from appointing senators to electing them, why don’t we make the Senate truly representative of the country. When it was established, the goal was to make the Senate represent the regions … geographically, with the West getting 24 seats, Ontario and Quebec 24 etc.
Why not make the Senate proportionally representative? In other words, fill the vacant seats with the goal of having the Senate reflect the popular vote in this fall’s general election. For example, if the Conservatives, Liberals, and NDP each get 30 per cent of the vote and the Greens 10 per cent (regardless of who forms government), then the prime minister must strive to have 31 Liberal, 31 New Democrat, 31 Conservative, and 12 Green Party members in the Senate.
The problem isn’t that we have a Senate, it’s that it represents the party in power, not the people of the country. That’s all that needs to be changed.
Bill Phillips is a freelance columnist living in Prince George. He was the winner of the 2009 Best Editorial award at the British Columbia/Yukon Community Newspaper Association’s Ma Murray awards, in 2007 he won the association’s Best Columnist award. In 2004, he placed third in the Canadian Community Newspaper best columnist category and, in 2003, placed second. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org