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How I Learned to Live With the Unelected Senate

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The federal government's bill to reform the Senate has me scratching my head. As someone from the West, I've had a long-standing interest in such proposals, but I can't figure out where this one is coming from. Maybe you can help me.

Consider the original Senate. It was designed for a fragile new country with a strong central government and an equally strong culture of regionalism. Basing the Upper Chamber on regional representation was a way of calming the provinces' fears about their place in the new federation.

The Triple-E Senate, on the other hand, was spawned by the rise of the West and its frustrations with the iron grip Central Canada had on Parliament.

The Charlottetown proposal emerged from a political crisis and bore all the marks of the furious horse-trading that produced it.

My point is that all these proposals were shaped by the political realities of the day and that, within that context, they made sense. What about the current bill?

As far as I can tell, since Charlottetown, the political context has changed in two ways. First, in the aftermath of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, everyone agrees that a major constitutional amendment would open a hornet's nest of other issues, so constitutional change is not an option.

Second, the wind has gone out of the Triple-E movement's sails. The West no longer wants in because it is in. Indeed, it occupies the Prime Minister's Office. Quebec's long-standing lock on the political agenda has been broken and Ontario is too busy worrying about tumbling into have-not status to focus on anything else.

So this is the political context in which the current reform bill addresses the three key issues of the method of selection, the powers and the composition.

On selection, the bill calls on all provincial governments to run Senate election processes, and then recommend the winners to the prime minister, who will appoint them. This way, the process avoids a constitutional change.

On powers, the new Senate would stay as it is, so no change is required here either, which brings us to the most difficult issue: composition.

First let's recall that the whole point of the Senate is to provide regional representation in Parliament. Accordingly, the Triple-E debate focused on two key goals: (a) give the West more seats to match the growth in its population and influence; and (b) legitimize the use of the Senate's power through election.

Throughout this period, Ontario and Quebec, which have 24 seats each, were very reluctant to reduce their share of seats to accommodate the four western provinces, which have only six seats each. Composition was the really hard issue and in discussions it was always the deal-breaker.

The exception, of course, was the failed Charlottetown Accord, where all provinces agreed on a new Senate with six seats each. However, this agreement was tied to a major reduction in the Senate's powers, a package of other constitutional changes, and a highly-charged political environment.

So how does the new bill handle the issues around composition? According to its supporters, the answer lies in an innovative new approach they call incrementalism. In effect, the bill promises to untie the Gordian knot of composition by putting it off to another day.

Really.

Let me rephrase this for you: the plan is to ask provinces like Alberta and B.C. to legitimize the existing arrangement by electing senators, on the assumption that at some unspecified date in the future Ontario and Quebec will volunteer to reduce their own share of the seats.

I keep wondering if I have missed something here. Can someone please tell me why Alberta or B.C. would believe this is ever going to happen? Quebec has already declared that it plans to challenge the proposal in the courts because it fears that even these modest changes compromise its historic status. This is hardly an encouraging sign for the future.

The only reply I've heard to this question is that the bill sweetens the pot by giving provincial parties a role in the nominating process. The argument seems to be that when western premiers will read this clause they will pause, stroke their chins and whisper: "Well! Look at this. If we sign on, our party could win some of our six seats in this new elected Senate." But does anyone really believe they will then go on to conclude: "Okay, then, let's go for it!"

If this is the best defense of incrementalism the bill can offer, I can only conclude that it is fatally disconnected from the political reality. Westerners are no longer clamoring for an elected Senate. Why, then, would a western premier support a proposal that not only entrenches the dominant role of Central Canada, but actually legitimates it? It is neither reassuring nor convincing to add that someday his/her province will be rewarded. That goes nowhere.

In short, unless someone has a better answer here, I conclude that Canadians will be living with an unelected Senate for some time to come.

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