With all the tom foolery going on in Ottawa lately, my pet project of Senate Reform kept getting pushed back. One of the cornerstones of my Senate changes was to distance the Senate from the House of Commons. I really don’t care if Senators align themselves with one party or another, I just don’t want them taking their marching orders from the Leader… or worse yet, the PMO.
When the PMO/Senate Scandal was in full swing and we were privy to the email barrage that was flying around the PMO, we saw the PMO staffers bemoaning the fact that the Senators weren’t using the talking points that these enlightened, unelected, unaccountable PMO staffers were sending them.
We saw the smack down they laid on Marge LeBreton for having the temerity to actually THINK!
Marge was slapped around, chastised, and finally gave up her spot as the Government Leader in the Senate for her troubles. Ol’ Steve Harper don’t go for them women folk thinkin’ for themselves I guess… or maybe it’s just Senators.
But then again, she wasn’t his puppet… just a loyal follower.
You know, back in the day Young Steve Harper railed against party politics in the Senate. He railed against political bagmen, failed candidates, and ex-journalists being appointed by the Prime Minister.
Remember that guy? He’s the one that said he would not appoint any unelected Senator to the Red Chamber. He pointed to Alberta as the way and told the other provinces to start electing Senators right away.
And the provinces did… nothing. They yawned and went back to doing Provincial things.
So Ol’ Steve did the unthinkable. He abandoned his Reform root and appointed a few Senators.
Now the Harper Echo Boxes will tell you that he had to. The Liberal dominated Senate was blocking bills and being mean and petty to good Ol’ Steve. Ummm, nope. They didn’t block a thing.
So anyhow, Ol’ Steve appointed a few failed candidates and it felt so darn good he appointed a few more. It felt so wonderful that he let Senators quit to run in elections and lose so that he could appoint them again.
By now Ol’ Steve has appointed a number of failed candidates, political bagman Irv Gerstein, some party hacks (well at least one that was transferred from the PMO) and a couple of ex-journalists. The last ones worked out so darn well, didn’t they Steve?
Basically he did the same darn thing he was wailing and moaning and gnashing his teeth over just a few years ago. Go figure.
So along comes Young Justin, fresh faced with new ideas and about the same age as Young Steve was when he took the helm of the Reform Party.
Young Justin calls his Liberal Senators in for a meeting (I’ll be He was on time) and tells the Senators “You guys are swell, but you can’t be in the caucus anymore.”
And Old Bear Cat looks up from the red dot named Fantino he was chasing and yells “Crud! I just got scooped!”
Young Justin has started his own Senate Reform while Ol’ Steve dithers and spends our tax dollars on Supreme Court cases to figure out what to do and Tom Mulcair just goes on with his pipedream of quietly shutting down the Senate.
Sorry Tom, it can’t be done without opening up the Constitution. You need a joint session to have a Throne Speech and you cannot enact a law, any law, without the Senate approval. It’s in there.
Now keep in mind that the ideas that I am floating are not an end product or a final answer, just some ideas to start the ball rolling.
The first item on my list was to distance the Senate from the House of Commons. The Senate is supposed to be a “Chamber of Sober Second Thought” but in reality and Harperily it has become a true rubber stamp that Young Steve railed against so mightily back in the day. You can reference the PMO approved talking points that those darn Senators on the Harper side didn’t bother to follow, but they voted as a bloc in favour of anything Harper sent up… except for that one thing… and Ol’ Steve just about blew a gasket over that… remember?
So I thought that it would be a good idea to distance the Senate from the House but I was willing to allow for a token Senator to sit in the caucus to allow for communications between the two groups. It would happen anyway.
So I was going to allow for the Parties to exist in the Senate, but not to allow one to dictate to the other.
The other reason that I would allow for a token Senator to join the caucus is that in the past, governments have had Senators sitting in the Cabinet. We have an unwritten rule that all regions of the country should be represented in Cabinet and if no viable candidate was available for a given region, a Senator would be selected instead.
Young Justin out foxed me there, I guess.
Anyway, about the regions (My second point). When the Senate was first brought into being, there was a great deal of concern that the Anglo majority would overwhelm the Franco minority. The idea of balanced representation in the Senate was to try and keep one part of Canada from dominating the others. The final decision was to balance the Senate by using the regions to determine representation. The Maritimes, Quebec, and Ontario would each have the same number of Senators so that a more populous province, which would have the lion’s share of the seats in the House would be counter balanced in the Senate.
The idea of the regions being used to offset the power of more populous areas intrigues me.
In Ontario, we have a situation where a party can gain a majority in the Provincial Legislature by winning elections in a rather small area. Toronto and the surrounding area (the GTA) now have almost 50% of the seats for Ontario. That’s an awful lot of voting power in a fairly small area. Put it this way, Toronto and GTA have more seats in Ottawa that most of the provinces. (This is why non-GTA Ontarians wince every time someone mentions using tax dollars to help pay for TO’s subways. We help pay for it, but we’ll probably never got to ride it.)
Quebec however is an oddity in the Senate. In Quebec, a number of the Senate Seats represent regions of the province. The power in the Senate is balanced in Quebec, unlike the other provinces where the bulk of the Senators are more likely to have come from the major metropolitan areas.
My thought is that each of the provinces should be divided into regions that are roughly the same size. Now some might complain about his type of thing not being fair to the big cities, and they are right… But it is fair to the more rural areas that do not get the same type of representation in the House that the big cities do.
Ontario isn’t special in this respect, each province has the same issue. The big cities get bigger and they gain more seats in the House. My thinking is that this could create non-political caucuses in the Senate. Senators in primarily rural ridings may have more to discuss with their counterparts in other provinces on small town or agricultural issues and big city issues would be more for those coming from the big cities. Take for an example a discussion of mass transit policies in urban areas. The Senator from Sudbury may not have much to add to the discussion but the Senators from Toronto and Calgary and Vancouver would have more of an interest.
It’s worth thinking about isn’t it?
This brings us to my third thought. How do we select Senators?
I know a lot of people think that elections are the way to go. I’m not a fan but I’ll hear the argument.
As it stands right now, the Senate Elections in Alberta are something of a joke. Sorry Albertans, but that’s how I see it. You vote on a slate of candidates and the winner gets the next available Senate Seat.
That part I get. What I don’t get is that the first runner up gets a seat too if another one comes available. So the loser gets to win too? If a third spot opens up, then the third place “winner” gets that one. You see where this is going…
In Ontario we have 24 Seats in the Red Chamber. There is a possibility that the 24th place candidate could end up in the Senate. Yeah, I know, not likely but you get my drift.
This is where I come back to the Regions. I’ll get a slate of candidates for my region. One winner per region. It’s how we do it in the other place, isn’t it? (Sorry, I’m not going to deal with Proportional Representation here)
Now there are other options on how to select Senators or potential Senators as well.
Basically what we have now is that the winner of the contest gets to pick the Senators to replace the ones that are retiring. Even with Ol’ Steve’s new rules He would have the final say, all he’d have to do is consider the elected or otherwise chosen Senate candidates. Not real Democratic, is it?
It’s kind of like saying that the Chicago Blackhawks get to name the officials to replace the ones that retire from the NHL. Now the Blackhawks may be honourable people and they might select only the best candidates, but the opportunity is there for abuse. For example, they could name people who would call games in their favour. Now a one time winner might not be a big problem, even if they selected a couple of less than stellar refs, but if they go on to be a dynasty it could adversely affect the reputation of the league.
And that is what we are looking at in the Senate. So far, Ol’ Steve has appointed in the neighbourhood of 56 Senators. There may be some good ones there, but he sure picked a few stinkers as well.
Maybe we should have candidates selected by the communities that they would represent? This could be an election, or just a screening process by community leaders or local Council members who would forward their lists to the final selection people. If we don’t go regional this could be handled through our Provincial Legislatures. Each Legislature having a committee of the whole to select the short list that moves on up to the next level, or possibly select the candidates themselves.
An added plus to this is that Senators would more likely be from the region that they are to represent than say a certain Senator “from” PEI. Yes, he’s from PEI originally, but that was a long time before he became a Senator.
Hey I’d even consider a committee of the whole in Ottawa to look at potential candidates and whittle them down to the short list that is handed to the PM. Or they could select the Senator and just hand that name to the PM.
This is about as far as I got before I got bogged down. How long should a Senator sit? Should it be a permanent position or should they just serve terms? And if we go with terms, how long should they be?
Ol’ Steve says 12 years (I think, it changes periodically) or maybe it’s 9, but only one term to a customer. Next please!
Ol’ Steve says this would make them accountable. I think otherwise. If we go with terms, then accountability comes from having to face your selectors and prove that you have done a good job for them. That’s why we have elections every now and then isn’t it?
The thing is, after a few years, some Senators realise that they don’t have to do what the Boss tells them. They have a guaranteed job and the worst thing that can happen is that they get tossed out of caucus. They’re still a Senator, so Ol’ Steve doesn’t want them in there for a long time. As a matter of fact, it only took hours before his Echo Boxes were out saying that a) the no longer Liberal Senators would still be Liberal Senators, and b) that if they were really out of the caucus they would vote how they decided the best way to vote would be and that was WRONG. Senators must vote the way their Leader wants them to vote.
I really wonder if anyone in the Harper Party has a clue about the Senate. Do they think that the Fathers of Confederation looked back to the UK and said “Oh, they have a Senate, we should have one too.” and that was that?
There was a lot of debate back then on how government should work. I’ve already mentioned the regionalisation of the Senate to counterbalance the representation by population in the House, but they looked at other things too.
They debated whether Senators should be elected. Some thought that they would be more accountable. But the decision was made in the end to appoint Senators because elected Senators would argue that they were equal to the elected Members of the House and could use this to block bills or to try and impose their will on the House.
It was also decided at the time that a Senate appointment would be a life time position. The think was that if there was no threat of expulsion that they would be able to consider bills with more latitude and hopefully come to better decisions on whether or not a bill should proceed or be sent back to the House.
But Ol’ Steve thinks that Senators, much like his MPs should represent the Party, not their constituencies. He wants them to truly be a rubber stamp.
You know, if I was one of his Senators I’d be offended. Ol’ Steve is basically telling them and everyone else that his Senators are not capable of thinking for themselves… So much for Sober Second Thought, eh?
I think most of us agree that the Senate as it sits is in trouble. The Senate was at one time more collegial, their debates were more open, but the hyper partisanship of the House of Commons has spilled over to the Senate. The Senate needs to be different from the House, it needs to be able to decide on its own what is or is not a good piece of legislation.
As I said earlier, this is not a list of thing that must be done or even should be done to “fix” the Senate. It’s just some ideas that have been rolling around in my head. If you have any thoughts or ideas to improve the Senate, leave them in the comments.
Your thoughts? BC