Provincial interests via a reformed Senate will force Prime Ministers to negotiate if Bill C-7 passed
Bruce A. Stewart
Quelle horreur! The thought of a Senate filled with Parti Québécois or Wildrose Alliance Senators blocking the will of the government fills the cognoscenti in this country with fear.
As well it might. Imagine, Canadian governance in the hands of something other than compliant Liberals and Conservatives. The mind boggles at the very thought!
Working its way through the Commons is the Harper Government’s approach to Senate reform. What Bill C-7 calls for isn’t change to the distribution of Senate seats (the Maritimes will still be over-represented, and the four Western provinces under-represented). It also doesn’t change the powers of the Senate (which are those of the House of Commons, with the one exception of not being the place where money bills originate). It doesn’t even make Senators directly elected.
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All of that would require constitutional change, and thus would likely go nowhere.
What Bill C-7 does do is require a Prime Minister to consider his appointments from lists of candidates elected as senatorial candidates in provinces and territories. Those elections, in turn, would be held in conjunction with provincial or territorial elections (saving the cost of mounting yet another effort). The resulting “pool” of “electees” thus form the short list from which a Prime Minister appoints a new Senator when a vacancy occurs.
Such “electees” also agree that they will resign from the Senate after nine years, allowing themselves to be replaced (since Senatorial appointments are until resignation or age 75, whichever comes first, under the Constitution).
Conducting such elections at the same time as provincial or territorial elections, of course, and given that parties will no doubt put forward slates of candidates for the pool, has the potential to effectively turn these elections into a form of party vote. It’ll be a lot like electing MLAs/MPPs or MPs, in fact: even though we’re supposed to be voting for the best person to represent us and our communities, most of us actually vote for the best party leader, or just for whichever name is associated with the party label of our choice.
So if you’re in BC and you’re a BC Liberal fanatic, or think Christy Clark is the best choice for Premier, just as you’d vote for John Doe running in your riding on the BC Liberal label you’d vote for Adam Nobody, Betty Who and Chandra Clown as BC Liberal Senatorial nominees, too.
The thing is, even when the label’s the same, provincial parties are seldom more than loose fellow-travellers with their federal counterparts. Then, too, of course, there are the parties that have no federal counterpart.
This would turn Canada’s Senate into something akin to the European Parliament, where MEPs under a variety of labels gather into loose coalitions (and some of the obvious match-ups on paper don’t occur).
For those who are used to the notion that a Prime Minister in a majority government situation snaps his fingers and says “march” and the Commons and the Senate fall into line — something like what we have at the moment in Ottawa — that degree of uncertainty looks like chaos unleashed upon the land. (Not to mention that years of service in the federal party’s back rooms being rewarded by a cushy Senate seat would go the way of the dodo bird: hacks and bagmen for Ottawa would need connections to their provincial counterparts good enough to push their hacks and bagmen off the Senatorial election list proposed at a provincial election.)
And what happens to a party like the New Democrats, which, federally, have abolition of the Senate as party policy but which, in power in Nova Scotia or Manitoba (or likely soon in British Columbia) might think a few NS NDP, MB NDP or BC NDP Senators waiting for appointment might be just the ticket to look after Halifax’s, Winnipeg’s or Victoria’s interests far away in Snowbound-on-the-Rideau-Canal? (Pauline Marois in Québec might well wonder whether it would make more sense to have a few Péquiste Sénateurs dans l’attente than some Blocquiste ones.)
For all of that, Bill C-7 (should it pass, and should the provinces and territories hold the requisite elections) has the potential to do something brilliant for our federal governance.
Having to negotiate with factions to get any government bill through the Senate would quickly temper the “my way or the highway” executive federalism practised by Prime Ministers in this country since Pierre Trudeau took over from Lester B. Pearson. They may well be able to whip their caucus into shape, but why would any Senator choose to voluntarily submit to a caucus tied to the Commons when they’re not a part of that federal party?
No, to get things done in the Senate, the Prime Minister and her/his entourage will have to actually bend, listen, trade-off, get agreement, rather than dictating terms.
Even when you agree with the direction the government’s taking, improving legislation doesn’t hurt. Or are you going to tell me that the two omnibus bills of 2012 were perfect in every respect, all almost 1,000 pages of them?
Of course, once a Prime Minister is seen to negotiate with the Senate, why would MPs in the House not want the same respect?
Well, if you’re used to having your own way, that, too, would be chaos. But, really, one of the big reasons MPs aren’t respected for the work they do is because of the trained seal aspects of whipping every vote, demanding total “message fidelity”, and forcing them to break with their constituents and personal commitments again and again.
Bill C-7, in other words, opens a Pandora’s box that has a huge nugget of hope at the end of the chaos. Bring it on!