The battles are under way in each of British Columbia’s 85 provincial ridings to top the ballot on May 14, but there is another election campaign that should be percolating by now.
Elections BC has primed its computer system and has some money stuffed under the mattress to conduct an 86th race, but so far, nobody has announced an intention to run for what might be the best job of the bunch: A seat in the Senate.
It sounds like a grand gig. Base pay of $132,300, loads of perks. Minimal attendance requirements. There ought to be a lineup of prospective candidates to replace the recently retired Gerry St. Germain.
But the long-promised opportunity for British Columbians to nominate their next senator hasn’t been formalized.
It is a good bet that the Throne Speech on Tuesday will promise a law to allow for a Senate election. It will set out the financial limits and other details, but is unlikely to provide a date. It is almost too late to conduct the vote on May 14.
Premier Christy Clark promised Senate reform last spring. Announcing it now may make a nice populist splash in the coming election, but the rules should have been in place by now to take advantage of the coming trip to the polls.
As a first step, a senatorial hopeful would likely need to collect signatures from across the province to put his or her name on the ballot. That will take time and money.
The campaign spending limits will likely be modest, making it challenging for anyone who doesn’t already have a high profile to build a presence across this large and diverse province. In fact, raising funds in the current climate, when the political parties have been squeezing money from donors for months, won’t be easy.
If the candidates were running under party banners, that would still be manageable. But the NDP, which wants to abolish the Senate, won’t run anyone. And the B.C. Liberals will likely avoid it too. The party’s coalition of federal Conservatives and Liberals is already strained – why risk splitting the camps at a sensitive time?
If the Throne Speech amounts to the kickoff for a senate nominee race for May 14, there will be just 13 weeks until election day.
But moving it to another date would be tough to defend.
Elections BC favours the model used in Alberta, the first province to use a Senate election system to nominate its own candidates. Last year, Alberta held separate Senate elections just months ahead of a general provincial election. Doug Black, who topped the polls in a field of 13 candidates, was recently appointed to the Red Chamber by Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
A mail-in ballot would cost roughly $10-million, and a ballot-box event on another date would run $35-million. The thrifty solution is to hold the vote in conjunction with the May general election, which would cost closer to $3-milllion.
The option of holding the vote on May 14 made sense a year ago, when the Premier’s parliamentary secretary, John Les, tabled a private member’s bill proposing a Senate election.
Mr. Les’s project might have been helpful in the party’s quest to win over support from the B.C. Conservatives. Senate reform is not a hot-button issue with the general public, but could appeal to reform-minded voters. But enthusiasm for his bill seemed to wither around the same time that the Liberals gained confidence that they were not facing a split in the centre-right vote. The bill died at the end of the spring session.
Still, Ms. Clark said last May that she intends to have an interim election of some kind to allow British Columbians to nominate their next senator. “That’s absolutely our intent,” she said.
This is not an unexpected issue that suddenly needs a quick fix. Mr. St. Germain’s mandatory retirement date last fall was no surprise.
The B.C. Liberals have had plenty of time to lay the groundwork for it. Perhaps the timing is deliberate, to make a nice pre-election statement for the B.C. Liberals. But rushing into a campaign that seems all but forgotten doesn’t look like a well-planned tactic. Nor does ignoring the vacancy when voters are going to the polls anyway.