Monday, December 07, 2015

Justin, tackle the Senate

We, in Canada, have one of the worst upper houses of any democracy in the world. It has taken the worst aspects of every other system and combined them.

The Senate is appointed, not elected.

The Senate is equal to the Commons, and can block legislation without the ability of the elected House of Commons to have the final say. Even the House of Lords in Britain hasn't had this power since 1911.

The provinces do not have the same number of senators... and yet, they don't have numbers representative of their population, either.

For years and years now, everyone has been saying the Senate has to change. But no one has wanted to take it on since the spectacular failure of the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords in the 80s and 90s. Fair enough. But twenty years of ignoring constitutional issues to let passions cool is enough. Time to take some matters on again.

The Senate is the biggest one. The Supreme Court ruled, not that long ago, that the government can't just adjust the nature of the Senate higglety-pigglety as it suits them. It requires a genuine constitutional amendment, meaning Parliament and 7 of the provinces representing 50% of the population have to agree and ratify it. Abolishing the Senate outright would require the unanimous consent of the federal Parliament and every province. The latter strikes me unlikely.

But the former should be possible. Most of the western provinces are keen to reform the Senate. They've wanted to for years. Ever since I was a kid, they've been floating a "Triple-E" Senate... elected, equal, effective. I used to be a proponent of this scheme but in recent years, I've cooled on it. Australia has just such a Senate, and it has, on more than one occasion, served as a second government in opposition to the House of Representatives there. We have enough problems in Canada without instituting regional blocs in the Senate obstructing national legislation re-enforced by the legitimacy that being elected would offer them. So no, frankly, and though it sounds undemocratic and regressive, I do not want an elected Senate. I'd rather see the thing abolished.

But I would like to see the provinces all have an equal number of Senators. The province I was born in, Nova Scotia, came into Confederation with 10, which it still has. British Columbia, which joined four years later, got only 6, and still has only 6, despite having almost 5 million people--5 times Nova Scotia's mere 920,000. Prince Edward Island, with just 140,000 people, has 4... 2/3 the representation of British Columbia. But the sticking point here will probably be Quebec, which clings dearly to its 24 Senators, and typically opposes having simply the same share of Senators as just any other province. Quebec, with about 8 million people, has as many Senators as Ontario, which has about 14 million people. My personal feeling is that every province should have what BC has... 6. That would be 60 Senators... 69 if we gave each of the three territories a half-share of 3 Senators each, say. Something like that, anyway.

I'd also like to see Senators chosen from a list made up by some citizen's committee--something like jury duty--in the appropriate province. Let them propose three or four people of merit from their province, and those we agree to the nomination move forward. Then, instead of the Prime Minister just picking some bag man whom he either needs to reward or buy the silence of, a federal committee of citizens--selected at random and flown in from across the country at government expense--could take a week or two and vet the names and select the candidate they feel is most deserving, and that person (or persons) would be appointed by the Governor-General to the Senate. So there would be provincial involvement and federal approval, but at the level of citizen committees. It's not an election per se, so it doesn't give the Senate an authority equal to the Commons... but it still has the sense that the country, not just the current Prime Minister, has selected the members of the Senate.

Something. Anything.

But Justin Trudeau is reluctant to take this on. The Premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, has criticized him for making a bad situation worse. I partly agree, with regard to the unequal number of Senators (though I praise the idea of a five-person advisory board to propose new Senators... it's a start, anyway). Justin, you wanted to be prime minister. I wanted you to be prime minister. But part of that is holding your nose and taking out the constitutional garbage. I know it's thankless, but it's a genuine part of the job. You wanted it, you got it. And after all, your own father finally brought home our Constitution from Britain and gave us the Charter of Rights and Freedoms... considering that, how hard could it be just reforming the Senate? Now do something besides what your three predecessors did: just spray a little air freshener around this mess and pass the buck. You've resumed the dialog between First Ministers, and that's a great start. Strike while the iron is hot and you have some good will to trade on. Give us a Senate we can work with for another century or so.