Harper's First Steps Towards Senate Reform

Billed as a "first step" in SENATE reform, Stephen HARPER's proposal last week to limit new senators to eight-year terms seemed more overdue than audacious. Senators now serve from the day they are lucky enough to be appointed until they turn 75, sometimes several pleasant decades. Sen.

Harper's First Steps Towards Senate Reform

Billed as a "first step" in SENATE reform, Stephen HARPER's proposal last week to limit new senators to eight-year terms seemed more overdue than audacious. Senators now serve from the day they are lucky enough to be appointed until they turn 75, sometimes several pleasant decades. Sen. Pierrette Ringuette, for instance, who was named to the upper chamber by Jean Chrétien in 2002, can stay until 2030. (If he's able to attend her retirement bash, the former prime minister will be 96.) Who could object to shortening the payoff period for Ottawa's cushiest patronage prize, which now comes with a base salary of $122,700 per year? But a first step implies more strides to come, and the Prime Minister has signalled that he intends this modest one to begin the march toward electing senators - a potentially far-reaching, and contentious, shift in who wields political power.

Harper has brought the Senate back to the centre of debate about the state of Canadian democracy after years out of the spotlight. The heyday of western agitation for a new kind of Senate - elected, effective and with an equal number from each province - is long past. It faded fast after Canadians rejected the 1992 CHARLOTTETOWN ACCORD, which would have overhauled the Senate along those Triple-E lines, in a referendum. The case that alienated westerners could only gain real power in Ottawa in an overhauled Red Chamber would be harder to make nowadays. After all, an Albertan is PM. When Harper promised during the recent election that a Conservative government would create "a new national process for choosing elected senators from each province and territory," the pledge sounded almost nostalgic, a nod to his party's Reform wing, and the era when Alberta farmer Bert Brown plowed the words Triple-E into his wheat field.

The campaign promise was never touted as a top priority. But last week's move suddenly made a full-scale Senate overhaul a real possibility, though details remain sketchy. Even those who applaud Harper for reviving the issue wonder how he plans to move forward from eight-year terms to elections, and are also curious about the main objective of reform.

Harper was vague on how he hopes to create an elected Senate. Direct elections with binding results would require provincial agreement for reforming the Constitution - an extraordinarily tall order, and a risky political undertaking, as the MEECH LAKE and Charlottetown accord debacles proved. It's more likely that Harper wouldn't try to tamper with a prime minister's right to appoint senators, but only introduce a practice of naming those who won some sort of non-binding vote. "We're still looking at how exactly we'll do that," he said, adding that he is "just trying to get some consensus" on the mechanism. One of the tricky aspects of any switch to naming elected senators would be managing the transition from the current patronage system to one that has democratic legitimacy. It seems likely that the Senate would for some years be made up of a mix of appointed and elected members - a potentially awkward blend.

Consider the timetable for appointments. Out of the 105 Senate seats, seven are currently vacant, and Harper has vowed not to fill them until a system for electing senators is devised. Another 49 senators will reach mandatory retirement age over the next nine years. That means that within a decade the majority of serving senators might be elected. By that point, probably before it, the convention that the Senate must, with rare exceptions, pass the bills sent to it by the House would likely be obsolete. Some new understanding of the role of senators would have to emerge. But to what extent would a Senate that combined democratic legitimacy with the taint of patronage be justified in picking and choosing among bills passed by MPs? "A two-tiered Senate, with some who were appointed and some who were elected - that game isn't going to work," says Bruce Hicks, a University of Montreal expert on reforming democratic institutions.

But Roger Gibbins, president of the Canada West Foundation, sees a gradual transition toward that uncomfortable moment as the most promising route to true Senate reform, complete with constitutional amendments. "It's an argument I've always been hesitant to go public with," he admits. "But the only way you end up with more comprehensive reform is if you destabilize the status quo to the point where Canadians say, 'This is a mess, and we've got to sort this out.' " University of Calgary political science professor Ted Morton is another advocate of slowly changing the nature of the Senate by appointing members selected in non-binding elections, until the pressure to enshrine the new reality in the Constitution becomes undeniable.

If Harper is seen to be following that incrementalist strategy, opposition is bound to emerge. "The concept of gradually turning over to the Senate major law-making powers that have never existed in our constitutional tradition is something that should concern every Canadian," NDP Leader Jack LAYTON said last week. "We'll never open the door to that," Bloc Québécois Leader Gilles DUCEPPE said flatly when asked if an elected Senate with new powers might come about by stages.

And, in fact, the biggest question of all is just what powers a Senate with democratic legitimacy would have, and be inclined to use. Back in the early nineties, the priority was to use the Senate to bring regional power from the fringes to the centre. More recently, though, interest has shifted from redressing that perennial tension between heartland and hinterland, to creating an upper legislative body that would act as a check on the power of prime ministers. "Over time," says Gibbins, "I've found the regional representation argument less compelling than the need to have some sort of counterweight to the concentration of power [in the Prime Minister's Office]."

Still, Gibbins hasn't entirely lost interest in giving provincial and regional interests a more secure voice in federal decision-making. "We had this 30-year 'the West wants in' campaign," he said. "Well, the West is in, but we're in because of a particular Prime Minister being in office. What we want to do is put into play a modest set of institutional reforms so that we don't have to rely on the fickleness of the party system to provide regional representation." In other words, elect powerful senators who represent their province, and who would be independent of any prime minister and his contingent of MPs.

Senators playing that role would also compete with premiers for status as the true voice of their provinces in national affairs. Bruce Hicks puts it this way: "Who would speak more strongly for Alberta - a premier who was technically elected from just one very small riding, or a senator who represents the whole province?"

With that question hanging in the air, it's no surprise that many premiers are less than enthusiastic about a more potent Senate. Ontario's Dalton McGuinty is for abolishing it outright, and that's also the preference of B.C.'s Gordon Campbell, Saskatchewan's Lorne Calvert and Manitoba's Gary Doer. Ralph Klein favours an elected Senate, the long-standing Alberta position. A Senate designed as a vehicle for provincial concerns would throw into question the emerging role of the Council of the Federation, the premiers' club established in 2003 to forge a united front, when possible, in their negotiations with Ottawa. Gibbins sees the potential for making fed-prov wrangling less central to Canadian politics as one of the most appealing aspects of Senate reform. "I happen to come from Alberta, a province dominated by federal-provincial conflict," he says. "We've had a series of premiers going back a long time who have fought provincial elections against the federal government, instead of on how they would govern."

Senator Marjory LeBreton, Harper's Senate leader, suggests that anxiety over the Senate's future might be soothed by setting some limits on its role. She said even an elected Senate need not take on a significantly more activist role than its old "sober second thought" function of reviewing laws sent to it by the House. In particular, she said the tradition of not rejecting spending bills could be maintained. "I actually think that we could still have a role in the Senate similar to what it is now," LeBreton said in an interview. "The will of the House would not be thwarted on budgetary bills, and that would be understood even before [elected senators] took their seats in the Senate."

That conciliatory tone might help pave the way for whatever Harper has in mind. But with the premiers unconvinced and opposition politicians on alert, it's a safe bet his push for reform will spark stiff resistance in at least some quarters. On the road to a new Senate, last week's first step may well turn out to have been the only easy one.

Maclean's June 12, 2006