Senate Reform Starts With the People

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Appeared in the National Post

Canadian history is littered with proposals for Senate reform. Some voices, particularly from the West, say this has never been more necessary for the essential twin tasks of regional representation and checking a centralized executive branch. But the reform efforts have never gotten anywhere.

Today there is a brand new way to break that logjam -- if reform is really what we want, which is a serious question. That is the opportunity and conundrum posed by a new Fraser Institute study, Challenges in Senate Reform: Conflicts of Interest, Unintended Consequences, New Possibilities.

The report makes a number of unconventional findings, the first being that the Senate actually works quite well compared to the House of Commons, which is where the real problems lie (and where corrective action is much easier).

Senate reform has some definite upsides in terms of improving the way our central government functions. The experience of Australia demonstrates that an elected Senate can co-exist with a British parliamentary House of Commons.

On the other hand there is a dark downside, at least for decentralists and small government people. To understand this, consider the experience of the United States following its decision to directly elect its senators in 1913. (They were previously appointed by state legislatures.)

With a new, direct voice of the people and the regions in the nation’s capital, Washington gained hugely in legitimacy and continued an inexorable march to the centralization of power into the huge central government that we see today. An elected Canadian Senate would likely have the same effect.

Do we want bigger government in Ottawa? (My guess is that at least many Quebecers and Westerners would, upon reflection, say No.)

If one still wants Senate reform, the report finds that the currently popular Triple E Senate (Elected, Effective and Equal) would have serious adverse consequences for the three wealthy provinces containing about 65% of the population. They would collectively have only 30 seats as compared with the 70 for the poorer provinces. An elected and powerful Senate with this sort of voting bloc would be a perpetual and powerful engine to transfer wealth via federal taxing and spending from productive to less productive parts of the country. Does this make sense?

And would Quebec -- assuming it agreed to Senate reform at all -- agree to having the same number of seats as Prince Edward Island?

Never mind, say some. Their plan: Let’s just get on with it and start electing senators to the existing Red Chamber by having the prime minister agree to appoint from each province only such persons as chosen by an advisory election in that province. The Senate would quickly become legitimate (via election) and we could make other changes later.

But could we? It’s unlikely.

The report finds that without further change we would then have a powerful Senate with legitimacy, but no accountability. (Senators serve until age 75 and it would probably take a constitutional amendment to reduce that by much.)

The new Senate would have the same kind of regional imbalance: 36 members from the more productive provinces as opposed to 69 from the rest -- a huge majority in the Senate, but based on only about 35% of the population. This is a guaranteed recipe for national conflict.

Unaccountable, unbalanced and powerful -- surely this would be changed? But there are too many constitutional roadblocks, described in excruciating detail in the report. Changes in the powers and numerical balance in the Senate require constitutional amendment, and why would the small provinces agree?

Why would premiers agree to the creation of a new class of province-wide elected politician that would reduce premiers to the role of state governors in the United States? Why would MPs agree to a new sort of senator that would be far more powerful than any of them? Agreement on further reform would be nigh impossible.

So ironically, the easiest solution might be abolition -- not at all what reformers had in mind. But it turns out that abolition requires unanimity for a constitutional amendment, so the horror show would continue.

Is there a way out of this box? The report says there is.

The problem is that politicians are hopelessly conflicted in seeking such basic reform. In British Columbia, we have found a brand new way around that with our Citizens’ Assembly, soon to report on electoral reform for the province. The Citizens’ Assembly has immense legitimacy and its recommendations will go, unchanged, direct to the people for a referendum vote on May 17, 2005. Senate reform could be tackled by the same technique and the result, while not constitutionally binding, could not politically be ignored.

The details of the Assembly are discussed in the report, but the very successful B.C. experience suggests the basics of random selection of the membership, decision-making by regional majorities and a referendum requiring approval in all five regions of Canada.

This technique could break the logjam, though with all of the questions in play it is also possible that an Assembly might conclude that the Senate is best left alone. But at least, and at last, the long-standing movement for Senate reform would have a fair hearing.

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