CANADA

The winds of change

Alberta makes plans to elect a senator

JOHN HOWSE February 13 1989
CANADA

The winds of change

Alberta makes plans to elect a senator

JOHN HOWSE February 13 1989

The winds of change

Alberta makes plans to elect a senator

For decades, the proposal has been the subject of debate, often heated yet invariably unproductive. But now, Alberta Attorney General James Horsman has moved his province to the threshold of taking the first decisive action toward reforming Canada’s appointed Senate. Last week, Horsman applied the finishing touches to a bill for presentation to the legislature’s winter session, beginning on Feb.

17, which would permit a precedent-setting election for a candidate to fill the province’s vacant Senate seat.

Said Horsman about revamping Parliament’s upper chamber: “It is coming, it is building. The first elected senator in Canada will forever change the face of the Senate. For the first time, every province’s best constitutional experts are giving reform serious attention.”

Indeed, the governments of five provinces—the four in the West and New Brunswick—have expressed their sympathies for the aims of the so-called Triple E movement for Senate reform. (The movement takes its name from its demands for an elected, effective Senate with equal representation from all provinces.) And the Meech Lake constitutional accord lays the groundwork for reform by giving the provinces a voice in filling Senate vacancies and by putting the topic of Senate reform on the agenda of a First Ministers’ conference to be held this year.

But Horsman’s initiative appears to be heading Alberta—and the Senate reform movement—toward a showdown with the federal government. Senator Lowell Murray, federal minister of state for federal-provincial relations, said on Jan. 12 in Fredericton that Ottawa has agreed under the Meech Lake provisions that the provinces could submit lists of candidates for Ottawa to choose from—not a single candidate, which would be the case in the election that Horsman is planning. If Alberta did elect a senator, he could—as the procedure stands now—hope for no more than consideration as a candidate.

The movement for upper chamber reform has flowered largely among westerners, partic-

ularly in Alberta. Until now, the federal government has had a free hand in appointing members of the 104-seat Senate, which reviews all legislation passed by the elected House of Commons. The composition of the Senate is determined on a regional basis, with 24 each from Ontario and Quebec, 24 from the Maritime provinces (10 each from New Bruns-

wick and Nova Scotia and four from Prince Edward Island), 24 from the West (six from each western province), six from Newfoundland, and one each from the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Now, although the Meech Lake accord is not scheduled to go into effect until it is ratified by all 10 provinces—the deadline is June, 1990, for the two holdout provinces, Manitoba and New Brunswick—the federal government is likely to operate according to its spirit in filling any of the seven current Senate vacancies. Under the accord, the provinces may submit “the names of persons who may be summoned to the Senate” and the federal government will

make its choice “from among persons whose names have been submitted.” If Alberta ultimately submits only one name, that could pose a dilemma for Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s government. Said Bert Brown, a Calgary district farmer who is national chairman of the 8,000-member, Calgary-based Canadian Committee for a Triple E Senate: “If the Prime Minister does not accept the will of the Alberta people, it will be an unacceptable slap in the face for democracy.” On the other hand, if Ottawa did accept that person, it would encourage other provinces to take the same approach.

At the national level, two of the Triple E aims—election and equal representation— have gained considerable acceptance. A 1984 joint House of Commons and Senate committee

report began with a simple declaration: “The Canadian Senate should be elected by the people of Canada.” And the Meech Lake preamble recognizes “the principle of equality of all the provinces,” a clause inserted at the strong urging of Alberta Premier Donald Getty, a campaigner for Senate reform. But there appears to be no broad consensus on the definition of Senate effectiveness. Said Horsman: “The last thing we want to do is paralyse Parliament by establishing two competing bodies. The Senate’s role should be to protect the interests of the individual provinces in areas of joint federal-provincial interest such as immigration and agriculture.”

For their part, officials from Quebec, after several meetings with Alberta officials and Triple E’s Brown, said that their province will give Senate reform priority if Meech Lake is approved by Manitoba and New Brunswick. But Ontario is less enthusiastic about the Alberta election initiative. “What Alberta is doing should not be confused with Senate reform,” said Ontario Attorney General Ian Scott. “Until Meech Lake is passed, all this in a sense is irrelevant. Senate reform simply cannot occur without Meech Lake.”

No serious candidates for jhe Alberta Senate vacancy have come forward, but Brown himself might be one. “I have never passed up an opportunity

to promote Senate reform in the past

six years,” said the Triple E campaigner. “This would be the ultimate challenge.” Other potential candidates include Preston Manning, leader of the Reform Party of Canada, which attracted 15 per cent of the Alberta popular vote in the last federal election on a platform of a greater western voice in national affairs, and former provincial Liberal leader Nick Taylor. But when Horsman’s bill becomes law, as seems inevitable, someone will become Canada’s first elected candidate for the Senate— and, if Ottawa appoints him, a symbol for Senate reformers across the country.

JOHN HOWSE