A blog to give a voice to our concern about the continued erosion of our democratic processes not only within the House of Commons and within our electoral system but also throughout our society. Here you will find articles about the current problems within our parliamentary democracy, about actions both good and bad by our elected representatives, about possible solutions, opinions and debate about the state of democracy in Canada, and about our roles/responsibilities as democratic citizens. We invite your thoughtful and polite comments upon our posts and ask those who wish to post longer articles or share ideas on this subject to submit them for inclusion as a guest post.
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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Senate Elected by whom?

In recent weeks with the appointment of more “partisan” senators there has been an increased interest in, and discussion of, Senate reform. There are a number of ideas floating around but the main theme seems to be an “elected” senate. Whilst I agree that we should make the selection process less partisan I am not sure that saying that we should “elect” senators is sufficient to address the problem.

As one observer said:-

“If candidates for the Senate are aligned to our existing political parties, they will be dependent on those parties for financial and moral support to be nominated, elected and re-elected once their term is up. If they vote on a bill, contrary to their party’s vote in the House of Commons, they risk being ejected from that party and losing all support needed for re-election. We've seen how ruthless the last few PM's have been when a member votes his or her conscience. If you’re not careful, what you end up with is just doubling the number of sitting MP’s/Senators who are under strict control of one Party leader. They just sit in two buildings.”

I agree entirely, as always the devil is in the details, elected when, how, by whom, under what circumstances, these things make all the difference.

Here is how another commentator sees the current situation:-

“Its mostly a pay-off for cronies and chums that have supported that particular PM's party over the years. The PM usually appoints a few celebrities at the same time; athletes and news commentators to take the spotlight off the fact that its basically cronyism. If you are a good servant of a party, you will be rewarded with a lifetime job where you can show up and sleep.”

Whilst not entirely true that view most certainly is how many see our senate, and it is this view that gives rise to the “abolish the senate” faction, one that those in the corridors of power that want to control everything are glad to encourage. It is not however the whole story and does not reflect (other than the partisan bit) the majority of appointees.

As with debate about proroguing and coalition governments we must be careful to ensure that we know the FACTS and are not basing our views on spin, misconceptions and deliberate misinformation spread by those with a “hidden” agenda.

I am going to briefly try and make sense of this subject, give you some links to further information, and make a suggestion as to what I believe may be the best way to “reform” senatorial appointments.

Rather than repeating here what and how the senate operates I suggest you go to The Canadian Senate: Role, Powers & Operation and for an overview of the many efforts at senate reform see Senate Reform in Canada. This site has much more information on how our parliament operates and I highly recommend it. For more official texts on the subject you can go to the Parliamentary web site.

I urge to read at least some of this material if you are not knowledgeable on this subject for knowledge of the history, operation and previous attempts at reform are essential when considering currents proposals.

Perhaps the most contentious issue apart from the actual changes that may be proposed is whether they can be done without constitutional changes which require either full or partial consent by the provinces. Whilst it is possible that a PM could for instance accept recommendations from provincial governments and legislatures and in turn make those recommendations to the Governor General and not in any way conflict with the constitution it seems improbable that he would do so without some parliamentary ruling pressuring him to do so. However …... “In 2007, the governments of Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador, publicly stated that any change to the terms and selection of Senators would require provincial consent, and have requested Prime Minister Harper's government to consult with the provinces before making any changes to the Senate.”

So with all that in mind here is MY modest proposal which one would think would meet with provincial approval and thus could, in the future, be incorporated into the constitution if so desired.

That as and when a senate seat become vacant the appropriate provincial legislature shall by majority vote nominate a candidate for consideration to the Prime Minister of Canada who shall in turn recommend this candidate to The Governor General of Canada for consideration as a Canadian Senator. Should the Prime Minister not accept the Provincial recommendation he shall give full and good reason for his rejection, the House of Commons shall be given the opportunity to debate the candidates qualifications and the Provincial Legislature shall be given the opportunity to publicly defend and support their choice and / or select an alternate candidate.

I offer the following observations in support of this proposal.

1) It avoids the expense and difficulty of requiring a public election each time a senator retires, and the electing of senators during a federal or provincial election which would be even more partisan..

2) It avoids the politicization of a public election campaign and would reflect a variety of political views as represented by the various legislatures involved.

3) It removes as far as possible the partisan choices of the PM of the day from the mix.

4) It ensures that the senators elected are in fact representative of the provinces which they represent and not beholden to the PM of the day or his party.

5) I does not require constitutional change but just an agreement from the Provinces, parliament and the PM (that’s the tough one) to proceed in this manner.

6) A rejection of a candidate as proposed shall be given the full light of day and debated in both the provincial and federal legislatures so that a PM cannot arbitrarily reject a candidate without at least some measure of accountability.

I note that in almost all of previous proposals some form of having all or some of the senators either elected or recommended at the provincial level was included, however non of the proposals was ever adopted perhaps because of other more contentious issues also proposed at the same time. The problem is of course, that any decisions to make the Senate less partisan and more effective must be made by highly partisan MPs, MPP,s and indeed by the senators themselves.

There is much more to say about why we continue to need a senate and why it needs to be a non partisan body reflective of Canada as a whole, about how the existing senators have a much wider range of choices before them than many MPs ……. should they choose to be non partisan. The issue of the length of service, the age of retirement and those generous pensions needs to be addressed also but these must all wait for another post. Stay tuned!

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Skinny Dipper said...

I thank you for presenting a proposal to select the senators. However, I would find this process no more legitimate than the current illegitimate appointment process.

First, a provincial appointee would be based on the recommendation of the premier of that province. Yes, the legislature could approve or disapprove. As we both well know, our legislatures are largely rubber stamps for the premiers' decisions. Already, that candidate has been chosen based on politics. That candidate is political.

Next, the prime minister is not obligated to recommend a provincial recommendation to the governor-general. If one looks at our current prime minister, he would be highly unlikely to rubber stamp provincial recommendations to the Senate. Imagine Harper asking the GG to appoint a Parti Québécois nominee. It ain't going to happen. How about someone who supports rights for the Palestinians? I'm not so sure.

My biggest objection to the provincial appointment process is that no matter what we may decide on the provincial/territorial composition and powers of the Senate, I do think that I am intelligent enough to run for a Senate seen and to be elected by my peers--my fellow Canadians. I think I am smart enough to run for a Senate seat, and I think our fellow Canadians are intelligent enough to either vote or not vote for me. Senators who are not chosen by the people do not represent the people.

Personally, I do favour an elected Senate (but not the Harper model). If an elected Senate is not possible, I would be happy to abolish it.

Rural said...

I thank you for your thoughtfull reply, you are correct in that the PM would not be OBLOGATED to acept a provincial recomendation but if the proposal was publicaly avalable he would refuse at his own peril. Electing senators at large creates its own set of problems not the least of which is the cost and polotical spin which it would no doubt entail. Abolishing the senate is not an option whist we have polotical partys in the HoC who are willing to ram through poorly thought out legislation purely based upon idelogical ideals.
Its not easy any way you cut it, and most if not all changes require a consensus across the country to change the constitution!

Alan Goodhall said...


Here's a link to a couple of our new senators that work for us in the house of sober second thought.

We are most definitely in need of change. Starting with the HoC.

sfgoodfella said...

Certainly, a more democratic Senate would be a positive for Canada but I think this suggestion could have some destructive consequences. First, it is likely to create inter-governmental corruption where provincial politicians trade political favours (ie: money flow) for installing preferred senators by the incumbent govt. Second, the federal govt. is created to protect NATIONAL interests while provincial govts are in place to advance their interests. Giving provincial govts more say in fed politics only threatens to increase regional fractionalization, already a serious problem in Canada. In short, I think your suggestion, certainly well-intended, would create serious conflicts of interest and I so would oppose it. Generally, I think any strategy that gives provincial governments a voice in federal government is a politically dangerous idea.

As Canadians we should hold out for a fully elected Senate. Let's examine the US model for a second. US Senators are elected for longer (6 year) terms than presidents or members of the House. Wny? Because the US Senate is intended to represent longer-term interests of the country. Second, US Senators are elected on a staggered basis. so the institution is constantly being evaluated and updated via democratic scrutiny of the electoral process. Lastly, each state gets two reps so all regions get a voice in national decision-making.

The first two of these characteristics (6 year terms and staggered elections) I think are worthwhile in Canada. The last characteristic (equal vote weight to each province/territory) may not be applicable in Canada. With only 13 non-federal jurisdictions, it might not make sense to give, say PEI, 8% of the Senate vote to less than 1% of the population (in contrast, in the US Rhode Island still only gets 2% of Senate vote). However, some formula could be worked out that gives more regional balance.

Lastly, elections while costly in absolute dollars are certainly very cheap relative to the potential costs of ineffective or corrupt government which can cost us billions, if not trillions of dollars. Election costs are just a "cost of doing business". In my mind, the costs of an election are a bargain relative to the costs of compromised democracy.

Rural said...

Goodfella, you make some good points regarding the staggering of terms and longer terms. I still wonder exactly how the election process would work however. Would an election be run in a particular province to appoint one senator each time a seat became empty? Maybe I am just being difficult but the practicality of it bothers me. I must also question how many voters would even bother given that we can only get around 50-60% to vote in a federal election! Lastly to go to electing senators by the population would require changing the constitution and that is a major hurdle to cross.
Yes senators are supposed to think nationally but they do represent the interests of their province in that regard and must reside in the province that they represent.