Monday, September 5, 2011

Senate Reform is Needed for Canada

My first article published for the Prince Arthur Herald student conservative newspaper!
In his January 23, 2011 speech to supporters in Ottawa, Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised to make the Senate elected.

But why is reform needed in the first place? Is the Senate not fine as it is?

No, it is not.

The composition of the Senate was established 144 years ago at confederation when Canada had a population of just over 3.4 million and was comprised of four provinces. Canada’s population has since skyrocketed to over 34 million in 10 provinces and three territories.

And yet the same 105 Senators sit, representing the same four “regions” of Canada.

Dividing Canada into “regions” and not provinces spells disaster for the largest provinces – Ontario, British Columbia, Quebec, and Alberta – and serves to the benefit the smaller provinces. The western region – comprised of four provinces – gets the same number of Senators (24) as Ontario does. Far from making the provinces “equal,” this makes the provinces weak and ineffective.

The lack of provincial divisions also means every day Canadians are grossly under or over represented by their Senator. Each of the six British Columbia Senators represents almost 700,000 people. Yet when we head east we see that each of the 10 Nova Scotian Senators represents roughly 92,000 people. The problem is worse in Prince Edward Island, where one Senator only represents about 33,000 people. In fact, the grossest over representation of Senators occurs in the Maritimes.  And we wonder why the west felt alienated?

The current Senate is also rife with regular reports of Senators lashing out, making irrational claims, using profanities, and regularly failing to sit for days, weeks, or months on end. But why shouldn’t they?  They’re not elected; they’re appointed for life.

This needs to change.

Firstly, the Prime Minister is absolutely right in introducing limits that will regulate the  duration of a Senators’ term to eight years (Bill S-7). With Senators currently being appointed for life, or until age 75, they can serve up to 45 years. As a result, they have almost half a century to filibuster anything while their party is not in office and approve everything proposed when it is.

Secondly, elect the Senate. Members of Parliament regularly have to answer to their constituents and defend what they have done (or not done) on the hill. If the constituents don’t agree, they’re gone at the next election.  Senators should have to fight on the same level; defending their choices while in office and making promises on important issues in that province.

Thirdly, get rid of the current regional division and replace it with a province based division where the number of seats are based on the population of the province. As noted above, the current Senate has enormous discrepancies between provinces, so some Canadians are highly represented in the Senate while others have no voice whatsoever.  This was originally done out of the Maritimes’ concerns that they would simply be ignored and trumped by the larger provinces. Nowadays, we recognize the Maritimes’ vital importance to the Canadian economy and they receive fair representation in the House, so over representation in the Senate is no longer needed.

What would this look like?  Ontario would have 39 seats as opposed to its current 24; Quebec would lose one seat and drop to 23; British Columbia would have 14; Alberta: 11; Saskatchewan: 4; New Brunswick: 2; Newfoundland: 1; Nova Scotia: 3; Prince Edward Island: 1; and the territories would remain at one each.
None of these reforms would come easy. These reforms would require a constitutional amendment, agreed upon and ratified in at least seven of the provinces with 50% of the Canadian population.  Neither the NDP nor the Bloc Quebecois are represented there, so it is no surprise that they support its abolishment rather than reform. To them, it’s just another club they can’t get into because of their inability to form government. It is much easier to whine about why the Senate is bad and not needed, than to accept this fact.

It will certainly take a strong political will (and probably a majority government) to take the steps needed to reform the Senate, but the payoffs will be more than worth it. Canadians will be equally represented across the country and will be able to hold their Senators to account.