Politics

ALL OR NOTHING

Tinkering with Senate reform might end up giving an unelected body more power

JOHN GEDDES April 12 2004
Politics

ALL OR NOTHING

Tinkering with Senate reform might end up giving an unelected body more power

JOHN GEDDES April 12 2004

ALL OR NOTHING

Politics

Tinkering with Senate reform might end up giving an unelected body more power

JOHN GEDDES

WANTED: disreputable partisans. How many and what sort? Let’s see, there are five vacant seats in the Senate, so a couple of armtwisting fundraisers, an out-of-work political aide, and a brace of regional bosses adept at stacking riding nomination meetings should about do it. Other resumés will be kept on file. Thank you for your interest. All in a day’s patronage work—or at least it would have been for prime ministers past. There are disturbing hints, though, that Paul Martin is considering introducing a less odious approach to selecting senators. In the current overheated atmosphere surrounding government ethics, pressure must be building on him to find a way to make appointments to the upper chamber more palatable. To which anyone truly devoted to democracy can only say: don’t do it, Prime Minister.

Perhaps some Canadians won’t immediately see the merit in this stance. A recent poll for the Canada West Foundation found a large majority in favour of Senate reform. Not surprisingly, in the West, where overhauling the Senate is an emblematic regional demand, 84 per cent favour electing senators. But so did 72 per cent in Ontario, where the concept has less traditional support. Stephen Harper gets big ovations by shouting that he’d appoint only senators elected by the provinces. Nova Scotia Premier John Hamm recently said he likes the idea. No wonder. The upper chamber of our federal Parliament is pretty hard to take. The 105 members are named at a prime minister’s whim and serve, if that’s the word for it, until 75, collecting their six-figure salaries whether they deliver good value for money (and some do) or not (also known to happen). Unlike elected MPs, who can be un-elected, they can never be held to account. And that’s what it all comes down to.

Yet edging toward reform would be worse than no reform at all. Martin seems to realize this—but perhaps not quite clearly enough. “I don’t really think that piecemeal reform works,” he said late last year when asked about the idea of provinces holding elections to choose senators he would then dutifully appoint. He added, though, that MPs might review Senate appointments, a more modest update that fits with his plan for some sort of House vetting of the judges he elevates to the Supreme Court of Canada. Sounds innocuous enough. But consider what it would mean: any new senators would have been duly examined by the elected representatives of the people. No longer craven creatures of party politics, they would carry the imprimatur of democracy, if not quite the mandate bestowed by the ballot box.

How could such newfangled senators be kept in line? It’s hard enough the way the system works now. Last week, it took extraordinary effort, including direct lobbying by Martin himself, to prevent Liberal senators from voting down ethics legislation that had been sent to them by the House of Commons. They had already rejected the bill once, on the grounds that it foisted on the Senate an ethics watchdog appointed by the prime minister. (Imagine the affront to their dignity.) And this was only the latest instance of the appointed parliamentarians defying the will of the elected ones. In recent history, the Senate has balked at passing legislation on subjects as weighty as free trade and pension reform.

It’s astonishing that Canadians tolerate these periodic upper chamber uprisings. They would become much more frequent if more senators were appointed in a way that gave them a more plausible claim to legitimacy. If senators got their jobs in a system that put some distance between them and the Prime Minister’s Office patronage machine, they might well feel honour-bound to act independently—and that would mean regularly turning up their noses at legislation a prime minister has pushed through the Commons.

Maybe that’s the kind of Senate Canadians want. Fine: they should elect governments in Ottawa and the provinces that offer the prospect of that sort of constitutional reform. The reality is that such negotiations have been all but inconceivable since the spectacular flame-outs of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords. Those who want an elected Senate know this. Seeing that formal talks aimed at big breakthroughs aren’t going to happen again any time soon, they hope to inaugurate a period of incremental change.

WE NEED appointees no one will mistake for tribunes of the people-perhaps some more Chrétien loyalists?

One prominent advocate of this strategy is Ted Morton, a University of Calgary political science professor “elected” when Albertans voted in 1998 for the person they would like the prime minister to next name to the Senate from their province. (He’s still waiting.) As soon as prime ministers start regularly accepting the outcome of such non-binding senate elections, Morton sees an inexorable process being set in motion. All provinces would hold such votes. Elected senators would be “sprinkled” into the Senate at the rate of a few every year as seats open up. This new class of senators would gradually assert itself, refusing to routinely accept the will of the House. Finally, after a decade or so, the bicameral tension would be so great that formal constitutional change would be unavoidable to catch up with the fact of a powerful new parliamentary force. Asked if he doesn’t think this is kind of sneaky, Morton says, “That’s underestimating Canadians’ capacity to understand what would be going on.” In other words, it would be all right because we would all be in on it.

Except for the premiers. Morton admits they would almost certainly be against the rise of the new Senate, because it would supplant them as the main voice of the provinces and regions at the heart of national politics. That would inevitably diminish the importance of provincial governments in the complex, counterweighted mechanisms of Confederation. This is big stuff, which is why constitutional amendment is so difficult to orchestrate. It should be. It’s about how we govern ourselves. There must be no back-door way to accomplish such fundamental change.

Many senators argue that there is nothing wrong with sticking to the status quo. In fact, a recent collection of essays edited by Senator Serge Joyal, Protecting Canadian Democracy: The Senate You Never Knew, essentially makes that case over 371 pages.

(Wouldn’t you have thought a volume on the Senate’s role in safeguarding democracy would be among those thin political books, along with Paul Martins Secrets of Crisis Containment and Belinda Stronach: Her Life in Public Service?) Joyal’s project misses the point: senators’ occasional good works can’t make up for the Senate’s fundamentally offensive status as a place of patronage and privilege.

Tinkering with the appointment process can’t dig up that rotten foundation; it can only create confusion over the Senate’s underlying, undemocratic nature. Best to keep that uncomfortable reality out in the open. That’s why we need appointees nobody will mistake for tribunes of the people. If the Prime Minister recoils from the necessity of naming partisan pawns of his own, here’s an idea: there must still be some overlooked Chrétien loyalists who would gladly take the plum. lí1]