Senate reform by stealth may give result we want
These days, it’s proportional representation that most Canadians think about if they think about democratic reform at all.
Yet, three decades ago, Senate reform was such a hot topic that it fuelled Western separatism and was a factor in dividing conservatives.
Nobody talks much any more about the unelected body and how its representation is so wildly out of sync with the population that both Newfoundland (population 526,000) and British Columbia (population 4.75 million) have six senators.
The overhaul of the Senate into the elected, effective and equal body proposed by the Reform party was always an empty, populist promise.
It did yield elected senators from Alberta starting with Stanley Waters in 1989. Since that appointment by Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, who feared Reform’s rising popularity, four others were elected in non-binding elections and appointed by Conservative Stephen Harper.
But everybody knew that further reform could only be accomplished by changing the Constitution and that wasn’t going to happen because it risks reopening talks with Quebec.
That’s left incremental change as the only possibility.
Harper left the door open for change with 22 seats vacant when his government was defeated.
While it seemed more of a political stunt than a plan, Justin Trudeau had already kicked Liberal senators out of the caucus and told them to be independents. As PM, he has filled the 22 vacancies and 23 subsequent vacancies using a new process.
Senators now apply and are vetted by an independent advisory board comprised of three federal members and two members from each of the provinces. These new senators are unaffiliated with any party.
Now, the 54-member Independent Senators’ Group is the majority in the Red Chamber.
The Senate still lacks the independent financial oversight recommended three years ago by the auditor general. But among the changes the Independents have instituted is having a quarterly report on office, living, hospitality and travel expenditures posted online.
And those old stories about the odd senator lolling on a tropical beach while the legislative session was on are not likely to happen now that attendance is also online.
How effective all of this is remains to be seen, although the appointment process has yielded less of an old boys’ club — 45 per cent of senators are women, 10 per cent Indigenous.
But Independent senators have been emboldened. In the past two years, one of every four government bills has been amended.
Is this sober second thought or activism?
“We are a revising body, not a defeating one,” Peter Harder, the government’s representative in the Senate, said in a recent interview.
“We haven’t insisted if the House of Commons doesn’t agree.”
He defends the more active role as a reflection of the “robust bicameralism” envisaged in the Constitution, saying Independent senators now debate ideas and propose changes rather than defend partisan positions.
Of course, the Senate also has the power to initiate bills, hold hearings on issues of its choosing and make recommendations to the government that flow from its findings.
If the Liberals win the next election and continue appointing Independents, Harder said the Independents’ majority is guaranteed for the next 20 years.
There’s no argument that making senators’ spending and attendance more transparent is a good thing.
Still, it remains to be seen whether emboldening an unelected and unrepresentative body is really what Canadians had in mind for Senate reform.