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June 22, 2011 / amanda stratton

Musical Senate Seats

Preface #1: This post is based largely on my opinion and not on facts, which is kind of against what I’m trying to do here, but I’m nothing if not opinionated, so exceptions must be made.

Preface #2:  I have to admit that until an embarrassingly short time ago, I didn’t even know that Canada has a senate.

So, my point is, I don’t pretend to be an authority on anything, and certainly not this. Feel free, as always, to correct me or argue with me.

You probably already know that on Tuesday (June 21), the Conservative party introduced the Senate Reform Act. I’ll say right off the bat that I don’t think this particular combination of changes is a good idea.

The Highlights
There are two parts to the reform:

1) Provinces will be encouraged to elect nominees for the Senate
2) Senators will serve nine-year terms instead of serving until they’re 75

An Elected Senate

Erm, no, not really.

Provinces will be strongly encouraged–not required–to allow citizens to vote for people they would like to have in Senate.  This isn’t really new–everyone could have done it, and Alberta has been doing it for a while.  The Senate Reform Act, if passed, “would require the Prime Minister to consider the recommended names from a list of elected Senate nominees when recommending Senate appointments” but the PM would not be required to draw from that pool of names.  So, for all these elections are really worth, the Prime Minister may as well just post a Facebook poll.

In fairness to Stephen Harper, in 2007, upon learning an Alberta seat would be open in the Senate, he did announce immediately (the next day) that it would be filled by their most recently elected Senator in waiting. The Act doesn’t require future Prime Ministers to do so, though, and it just seems to me that this portion of the Act falls something short of being an effective, dependable reform.  It has the potential to, depending on the Prime Minister, be a waste of time and resources.

Most importantly, I don’t think that this system–even if it was binding for the Prime Minister–corrects the problem it was supposed to correct, which is that Senate seats can be bought with either promises or cold hard cash.  Harper is widely known to have spent the last few years stacking the Senate with people who support this reform, which is kind of funny given what this reform is about, but I think his intentions were more or less honourable.

It’s naive, in my opinion, to think that electing a Senate would mean that people can no longer get seats based on who their friends are.  That will be how they get on the ballot.  And then the same political games and strategies that we all love to hate about MP elections will be just as rampant–and effective–in Senate elections.  Assuming these reforms are enacted, my sincerest hope is that it turns out that most Canadians don’t care enough about the Senate for it to be worth them going to the trouble of full-scale campaigning.  I’ll explain why in a minute.*

Reducing the Life Sentence

Having Senators serve until they’re 75 creates the potential for some problems, and not the least of them stems from the human proclivity for laziness when failure is literally not an option.  With a minimum age of 30 to be eligible for senate, that means that a Senator could serve for 45 years, which does, I admit, seem awfully long, and there is probably a legitimate concern that some of these Senators–especially those who weren’t necessarily politically minded to begin with–become old dogs not keeping up with the new tricks.

On the other hand, though, a nine year term is awfully short–and a bit of a tongue-in-cheek concession from the original proposal of eight, I’m guessing.  Like most of the people who felt eight was too short, I think nine is still too short, and that it precludes the Senate from performing its intended function. (More on that in a minute, too*)

I think what it will create is a second much more dangerous tier of party politics and backroom strategy.  With 105 Senators, on average and possibly using some sketchy math work, eleven or so Senators will retire every year, which means that every Prime Minister has an awful lot of immediate power in the Senate, especially given that there’s no obligation whatsoever to appoint the elected nominees (and can I please point out that even the term ‘elected nominees’ that arises from this process is (oxy)moronic?).  So if you think that Senators were being appointed based on their promises to support a given policy or party before, I don’t know how this seems like an answer to the problem at all.

The one saving grace of this part of the reform is that Senators will only be allowed to serve one nine-year term.  They can’t ever be Senator again.  Although I still think that nine years is too short, I’m glad that this means that the Senators can still make decisions, voice opinions, and generally do their thing without being encumbered by the ever-present knowledge that they have to win another election.  Which brings me to…

*Here’s the More:
The argument that our current Senate is simply not democratic–though true–is irrelevant.  It was never intended to be democratic because it is meant to be a check against the pitfalls and shortcomings of a democratic system.  Senators aren’t supposed to have to worry about votes and campaigns and strategy.  The Senate’s ‘sober second thought’ is supposed to be free of all those things to provide a level of consideration in which campaign promises and pandering and keeping one’s job past the five-year mark aren’t a factor.  If it can’t do that anymore, then it becomes a bit of a waste of a very nice Chamber.

I really do {heart} democracy!
I am pro-Senate because I believe in the value of those checks and balances that it provides, but don’t misunderstand, I think having a body of representatives that is elected and serves a fairly short term before being reconsidered for re-election based on the current views and needs of the citizens is equally–okay, more–important.  But we already have that. It’s called the House of Commons.  We don’t need another one.  If they’re going to go ahead and make the Senate a second House of Commons, I think we’d be better off to get rid of it completely and open up more seats in the actual lower house.  But that’s another topic for another day…



Sources for this article
Democratic Reform June 21, 2011 news release (that’s where the quote came from)
Wikipedia: Senate of Canada
Wikipedia: Alberta Senate Nominee Elections


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