Se­nate re­form by stealth may give re­sult we want

The Delhi News-Record - - OPINION - DAPHNE BRAMHAM [email protected]­

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.

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