Senate reform: much moreʼs needed

December 9, 2015   ·   0 Comments

LET’S HOPE CLAIRE HOY and The Globe and Mail’s editorial board are wrong in concluding that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s plan for Senate reform isn’t reform at all.

As you’ll see on the page opposite, Claire sees the current plan as little more than a dif- ferent way of accomplishing the same thing – partisan appointments, with the new senators just Liberals instead of Conservatives.

The Globe agrees with Claire that the new Prime Minister has not, in fact, reformed the Senate – “he has instituted a new way of selecting its occupants, one that his government will follow but which will not be binding on future governments.”

The Globe editorial went on to acknowledge that reforming the Upper Chamber to make it an elected body, or to redistribute its seats to better represent Canada’s provincial populations, or to impose term limits – or to bring about the ultimate reform, abolition – would require constitutional change. “As we’ve learned from recent history, that’s a dif- ficult if not impossible undertaking.”

In light of the spending scandals and the criminal trial of Mike Duffy, Mr. Trudeau clearly is obliged to do all he can to improve the Senate’s reputation, and in our view he could do much more than is currently planned.

His “solution” is to try to rid the Senate of partisan appointees. Both Conservative and Liberal prime ministers of the past have stacked the chamber with bagmen and cronies, some of whom had dubious qualifications for a job held until age 75.

The new PM is creating a five-person independent advisory board with a mandate to nominate candidates based on merit, and provide him with a non-binding shortlist of nominees – five for each of the 22 seats currently vacant. Candidates for the shortlist can come from anywhere; some time next year, there will be a webpage that will explain how you, too, can apply to be a Canadian senator.

However, the board’s nominee list is non-binding, and, as the Globe pointed out, the Prime Minister “can still appoint superannuated journalists and failed Liberal candidates to the Senate. Then again, he could appoint highly qualified people without a cumbersome, decorative process, if he wanted to.”

The Globe views more seriously the pros- pect of a Senate “filled with non-partisan, enlightened, progressive people who suit his Liberal vision of Canada. But non-partisan or not, they will still be unelected Senators, and they will still be required to respect the primacy of the House of Commons. Will they do that? Or will their lack of party affiliation and their lifetime job guarantees go to their heads?”

We’re inclined to doubt that would be a problem. Even if the absence of party whips emboldens the senators, they clearly can do no more than recommend improvements and delay passage of Commons bills.

However, the basic criticism of the proposed new selection process is sound.

Far preferable, in our view, would be delegation of the process to the provinces, surely something that could be done without a need for federal legislation. Each province could choose its own ‘nomination’ process and whether to submit a shortlist or simply name a single nominee for a vacancy. And if the nominee’s name were disclosed, the public would know if the Cabinet order confirming the appointment had a different name and could demand an explanation from the PM.

As for the difficulty of constitutional change, we cannot see any of the 10 provinces rejecting a proposal to give each of the Prairie Provinces the 10 Senate seats guaranteed Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (up from the current six apiece), or with British Columbia getting 12 seats (half those assigned Ontario and Quebec).

In the mean time, it will be interesting to see whether the current Senate, with 44 of its 83 occupied seats held by Conservatives, will delay bills passed by the Liberals’ Commons majority.

If that were to happen there would be a real danger that Claire’s prediction of mass Liberal appointees in the guise of independents will come true and the Senate’s poor reputa- tion would be deservedly further diminished.

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