Monday, February 22, 2010

Senate Reform


Another issue I wish to touch on is that of Senate Reform. With Harper verging on a Majority in the upper house, the possibility of Canada getting some form of Senate Reform is no longer out of the question. One thing I fear, however, is what the wrong kind of Senate Reform can do.

Back in the heyday of EEE (Equal, Elected, Effective) we had a far different political reality than we did today. During the 80’s, when EEE was first proposed, we had an NDP and PC Party that, together, shut the Liberals out of the West, and a Liberal Party that relied on its ability to rack up seats in Quebec to solidify its otherwise meager showing in English Canada into a strong Majority. For much of this period, the PC Party was even carrying the Atlantic. During the 90’s when the Reform Party rode EEE, they were dominating the West while the Liberals were dominant in Central Canada. Let’s take a look at this based on EEE with 10 seats per province.

Reform, and in fact most of the larger EEE proponents usually view EEE taking the form of a block vote. This is how Alberta has elected it’s Senators so far. This means each voter would get 10 votes to cast, and 10 candidates would be elected. Since it can be expected that many voters will cast a simple party line ballot, this results in a very high chance that one party can win all 10 seats. Lets use the 1997 election as our example. We would see the Reform Party winning 40 senate seats from the 4 western provinces. The Remaining provinces could be interesting. The Bloc did beat the Liberals in Quebec but only by a point. In a realistic scenario, voters would either pile on the votes to a single federalist party, or more likely given the political reality of the day, the Liberals and PC Party might even each only present a limited number of candidates (I will go with 7 and 3 for this example) and recommend their voters vote for these 10 people. I will presume they all get elected. In New Brunswick, the PC Party beat the Liberals by 2 points. This might not sound like much, but it is enough in a block vote scenario to give the party all 10 seats. The Liberals swept PEI, and would win all 10 seats here. Meanwhile, Newfoundland was won by the Liberals only by a single point. When things get this close you start to see true splits in block voting, and it is likely a few very popular Tories would have beat the lowest of the no-name Liberals. I will again go with a 7-3 split. Lastly, Nova Scotia, where the PC Party and NDP nearly tied; this could result in a split of 7-3 or even 5-5. I will use 5-5 for this example. Now, to add it all up, we see the following results.
Reform – 40 (BC, AB, SK, MB)
Liberals – 34 (10 ON, 10 PE, 7 QC, 7 NL)
PC Party – 21 (3 QC, 3 NL, 5 NS, 10 NB)
NDP – 5 (NS)

Given what we now know about the Reform Party and it’s dealings with the PC Party during the 90’s it is very easy to see a 1997 EEE Senate become a bastion of right-wing support. Under EEE, it only takes a single province outside the west to agree with the west (in terms of whom they elect) to create a majority (or at least a tie) in the senate. In every election from 1974 to 1984 inclusive, all 4 western provinces voted for the same party (the PC Party) In 1972 and 1988, they split between the PC Party and the Tories. Only in 1993 did the Liberals win 2 western provinces.

Another key part of the reasoning behind EEE was that there are “Urban” provinces, like Ontario and Quebec, and “Rural” provinces, like the other 8. This is no longer true. Most provinces have its citizens living in its largest metropolitan area: Ontario, with Toronto; Quebec with Montreal; BC with Vancouver; Nova Scotia with Halifax; Manitoba, with Winnipeg; and even PEI, with Charlottetown. The others either split the majority between two large cities such as Alberta, with Edmonton and Calgary, and Saskatchewan with Regina and Saskatoon; have a large plurality, and not a Majority in the single area, like Newfoundland and Labrador, with St.John’s, or have no single focal point for the population, like New Brunswick. Now that 50%+1 of Canadians in each province live in “urban areas” there are no longer the same “Rural Provinces” that there once were.

One key reason, however, that EEE has been dropped is Quebec. In order to change the seat allotments in the Senate, the provincial government of Quebec needs to sign off. Quebec will not do this. During the 90’s there was a time when many in the west hoped that Quebec would leave. This would have left Ontario, with 50%+1 of the population, and the rest of Canada, with 80 of the 90 Senate Seats. While this does make sense from a certain prospective, within the last 15 years, Ontario has started to use its might to say “enough is enough”. The province normally expected to make concessions to keep Alberta and/or Quebec happy is no longer willing to bend over and just let it happen. Ontario is saying no. Ontario is also unlikely at this point to accept a EEE senate.

It’s not that Ontario or Quebec have a problem with a senate that is Effective, or even Elected, it is the final E of Equal that is a non-starter. Even in British Columbia, where 13% of Canadians live, there are doubts that having 10% of the Senate Seats would somehow make the province more powerful on a federal stage.

Next, we need to look at the idea of an Elected and Effective Senate. The two are closely tied to one another, as they work best (or worst) together. When should we elect our Senators? If we elect them at the same time as the members of the House, are we not just creating a mini-house in the Senate? Our Senate has the power to block supply, so what of a party that massively wins the popular vote, but fails to win that support evenly across the country. Ontario and Quebec have 66% of the Canadian Population, should we put the fate of those 66% in the hands of the other 33% because the way we happened to cut up our country has drawn more lines over there than they did over here? Compare the physical size of any of the maritime provinces, and even the Island of Newfoundland, to the size of any other province. The argument could be made on the grounds of history, but what of Alberta and Saskatchewan that were cut out of Prairie on an imaginary line 105 years ago. This brings us back to Equal, how many seats should each province have? If it’s equal we run into problems of “why” and “no”, and if it is rep by pop we run into problems of a “mini house” in the Senate. For the answer, I say we need to go back to the original Confederation debates.

At the meetings that created Canada, there were many topics of discussion. Federal-Provincial powers was one, taking up a reported 40% of the discussion time. “Everything Else” beyond this and one other issue reportedly only took up 20% of the time. So what took up the missing 40%? The Senate. That’s right, debate on the Senate has been going on since before Canada was a country. Senate Reform even was proposed during our first Parliament, and so has also been discussed for nearly as long as Canada has been around. In that time various proposals have aimed to make the senate various things. Some aim to turn the senate into something they have in Australia or the US. Others aim to abolish the chamber. Some have managed to get passed like the idea that Senators must retire at age 75. In order to have a successful reform of the Senate we must look at what it was designed to do.

I don’t plan to write an essay here, so I will say in short, that the whole point of our Senate was to represent the provinces at the federal level. The provinces were quite willing to give the Federal Government a lot of power, so long as they would be integral parts of that Federal Government. This is something that we’ve overlooked in the decades since, while our Senate has become a chamber for partisanship and “sober second thought”. Perhaps the latter phrase was something John A Macdonald, a Federal Government leader wanted out of the chamber, but it was certainly not what the provinces had in mind. In the end, we now have a senate that is neither a chamber of the Provinces, a place for real thought, or is in any way effective.

So then, how do we make the Senate representative of the provinces? A direct election, I argue, is not the way. Federal parties running on Federal platforms will only create a senate of Senators with nation-wide ambitions. Tying Senate elections to Provincial elections will only distract from Provincial issues as Senators try to campaign on the issue they can do something about – Federal issues. The only answer, I argue, is for an indirect election of our Senators.

This still leaves open the problem of seats. Shall we give PEI the same number of seats as Ontario? Or shall we go with the current method of having all 730,000 people in New Brunswick have 10 senators while all 4,000,000 people in British Columbia only have 6. I say there is a better answer and it is found in the original compromise that created the Senate. You may be and hopefully are aware that the Senate has 24 senators per region. Ontario and Quebec are each single-province regions, while the Maritimes are a multiple-province Region. Remember, in 1867, this was the entire Canada as we know it. Nova Scotia and New Brunswick wanted 24 senators each, but Ontario and Quebec were unwilling to give up control of half of Canada to these newcomers. They settled on a compromise, rather than have an equal number of Senators per province, they would have an equal number of Senators per “Region” and this would allow us to draw the regional boundaries to best suit our needs. Sadly, this never occurred. The last time we redrew the regional boundaries was in 1915 when PEI sued the government saying it should have more MP’s than Senators (4). At that time, the government decided to nearly double the number of Senators from the growing Western provinces by making all 4 of them a single 24 seat region. I argue that this was, and should have always been, a temporary measure.

This brings us back to the present and the problem of how to best represent the various provinces. One thing that we have today that we did not in the distant past is a good statistical model. We can now project how many people we expect each province to have in 30 years, and even in 50 years. We can even get rough estimations of the population of each province 100 years in the future. The one thing that is clear when we do this is that the current gap between the 4 largest provinces (Ontario, Quebec, BC, and Alberta) and the 6 smaller ones will not be closing, rather, it will be increasing. We also see that it is quite possible that BC or Alberta (or both) will overtake Quebec in terms of population at some point in the next 50 to 100 years. Ontario it seems will remain where it has been since Confederation, and hold near 40% of the Canadian population for the foreseeable future.

With this information, it is impossible to ask BC and Alberta to get by with a total of 12 Senators. So, how do we rebalance the Senate? How do we pick our Senators? I will examine that in my next post (I will also examine a few alternate proposals to my own, including one that has been drawn up by an Australian friend of mine)

Sorry, no extra data today!

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