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Harper's Plan to Elect Senators 2
03/02/2006

I wrote about Stephen Harper's plan to elect Senators in mid-January. It would take a constitutional change to bring real senate reform, but a Prime Minister can appoint an elected Senator if he chooses. Brian Mulroney did it in 1990.

My previous posting pointed out what I felt to be the big problem with partial senate reform. Once we start electing Senators they'll have the mandate to pass or reject bills without the constraints of Senate history, and all legislation will require the support of a majority of Senators in addition to MPs. This is a significant change in our tradition, but the real flaw lies in the regional distribution of seats. The four Atlantic provinces are constitutionally guaranteed 30 seats in the Senate (which currently has 105 in total). Meanwhile Ontario, Alberta and BC are stuck with 24, 6, and 6, respectively.

To change this distribution would require a constitutional amendment approved by parliament and 7 out 10 provinces representing at least 50% of the population. But, it seems to me, such an amendment will be more difficult to get once the Senate counts for something. Why, for example, would one of the Atlantic provinces or Quebec vote to surrender this power once it matters?

Andrew Coyne had a post on this subject today, passing along news that an Ontario opposition MPP wants his province to hold a public vote to choose senators-in-waiting. In response, Gord Tulk, a regular commenter, posted this explanation of Harper's motives, which he claims Harper told him himself:

It is a "Cat amoung the Pigeons" strategy. By making them elected and thus empowered, the Senate will begin to flex its political muscle. It will be then that the glaring inequality of the current Senate inequality vis-a-vis the number of Senators each province has, will become front page news. At that point a real debate over making the Senate Equal will ensue and become red-hot. This will provide the PM a mandate to re-open discussion of changing the constitution in order to effect rebalancing of the Senate.

This doesn't seem very likely to me, just as we're obviously not on the verge of addressing the imbalances in the distribitution of seats in the House.

For the record, the Senate presently has 6 vacancies, and 6 more senators will retire in the next two years. That's up to 12 elected senators in 7 provinces. Another 25 retire in the 4 years that follow.


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