The most important thing to understand about the Senate of Canada up to this point is that it is formally equal to the House of Commons in most aspects of its Constitutional powers, and yet lacks legitimacy to actually act like a real legislative body and has for most of its days acted as a rubber stamp to the initiatives of the government of the day. This lack of legitimacy is attributed to the fact that Senators are appointed by the Governor-General on advice of the Prime Minister, and thus Senators have no independent mandate to actually defeat bills from the House of Commons, nor alter its legislation in any significant way.
By and large, this system has worked fairly well for Canada. The only big complaint about it is that the Senate became largely a patronage reward system where party hacks and fundraisers could draw a pretty decent government salary and enjoy the trappings of being a Parliamentarian without having to do the whole messy "run for office" thing. A number of Senators have become infamous in the media for lack of attendance and other misbehaviour, which has made reforming the Senate a popular issue for many.
So what does this bill do? Two things:
- Term limits. Currently Senators are appointed and can stay in office until age 75. This bill would set a 9 year, single term limit.
- Optional provincial elections. The bill sets up a stronger legal mechanism for Provinces to voluntarily elect Senate candidates, who would be appointed by the PM when vacancies occur.
What will the Senators who never won elections do? Some will join in the crusades of the elected peers, and others will try and stand aside, but the result will be a mess. What happens when the partially elected Senate defeats a House bill? The public reaction will almost certainly be in favour of electing the rest of them. However it plays out, the result will be to break the strong traditional prohibition on the Senate playing an activist role. Once this gets going, there won't be any way to stop it.
Now here's the question: Why would Stephen Harper, and the Reform/Alliance western conservative base he represents want to empower the Senate? One of the traditional complaints of Albertans is that they are "left out" and they claim "the West wants in" because of the purported underrepresentation of the West in Ottawa. Let's take a look:
|Province||Pop||% of pop||House Seats||% of House||Senate Seats||% of Senate||Ratio to pop|
It is true that Alberta and BC are slightly underrepresented by population in the House of Commons. But so is Ontario. Quebec is slightly overrepresented, but hardly anything dramatic.
As the "West" includes Manitoba (MB) and Saskatchewan (SK) in the usual understanding of the term, overall the four western provinces have 31% of the population, and 29.8% of the House seats. This is the grand "left out" claim? The four provinces have less population than Ontario, and are proportionally better represented.
Now look at the Senate. Owing to some silly history, the breakdown of the Senate is particularly antiquated and the founders broke Canada into four regions, and gave each region 24 Senators. So Ontario and Quebec got 24 each, the West got 24, and the maritimes got 24. This has left the Senate in a particularly egregious state of misallocated represenation. What doesn't make sense to me, is that the West is far more underrepresented in the Senate than in the House. There the four western provinces have 22.86% of the seats. In particular why Alberta would want to empower a body that almost cuts their influence in half versus the House is tres strange no?
It is true that the old Reform party mantra on the Senate would be to make it "triple-e" which is effective, elected and equal*. Harper's bill could potentially achieve the first two (after a fashion) but has no provision for the third? What's up with that?
The only rationale that makes sense to me is one of pure ideology. Senates, all else being equal tend to be biased toward conservative politics. It's harder to get elected to the Senate, it's more prestigious, the terms are longer, and consequently Senators tend to be older, whiter, less female and richer. All of which makes one more conservative. Harper isn't trying to solve Alberta's federal under-represenation problem, he's trying to stack the deck of the Canadian system in a way that improves the outcomes for conservative ideologues. If nothing else, adding an empowered Senate just adds a veto-point to government, which means that every bill is just that much harder to pass. Every barrier you add, means some percentage of legislation will not make it into law, no matter how you compose that barrier.
I have written before of this basic asymmetry of interests that is too often ignored in simplistic analyses of "liberals versus conservatives" battling for the neutral levers of government. Conservatives, at the end of the day, are usually far more happy to just have the government do nothing. They generally represent the interests of the rich, comfortable and powerful. Such people don't need anything from government. They'll take it if they can get it, but they don't need it to pursue their interests. Such people are also by definition a minority and have much to fear from government interfering in their ability to draw undue rents from the less powerful. Knowing nothing else about the issues or system, in this calculus Conservatives would prefer a government that is harder to operate than one that is easier to use to effect change.
I know a lot of Canadians detest the idea of a bunch of pampered hacks drawing government salaries until 75 for no expectation of work. This, I think, is the core of the popularity of electing the Senate. But that's no reason to empower our Senate to interfere in the business of governing. If you don't like the hacks, the solution is simple, abolish the senate like the NDP have been saying for years. Canada hasn't needed the Senate for much up to now, what exactly is electing the Senate supposed to solve? If you resent what they cost now, just wait until they feel democratically empowered to govern.
It's important to understand this, because on the basis of the age-old western complaints, Harper's bill makes very little sense. He may hope that a rebalancing of the Senators could come down the road, but that for sure would require a constitutional amendment. The current allocation of Senators could end up being permanent. PEI has 9 times the number of Senators their population would otherwise justify. Think they're going to give up 3 Senators without a fight?
* -I detest the idea of allocating identical Senate seats to each province "equal" - I see no reason to replicate the worst aspects of the American system, where the 500,000 people of Wyoming elect the same 2 Senators that the 37,000,000 people of Califnoria get to. That's about as un-equal as you can get.