British Columbia is throwing its weight behind an elected Senate, with a private member’s bill – supported by Premier Christy Clark – pushing for a vote this fall.
Although Ms. Clark’s parliamentary secretary John Les tabled the measure as a private member’s bill Tuesday, an official in the Premier’s office said he has the backing of Ms. Clark. Mr. Les said most members of the majority Liberal caucus are behind the Senate Election Act, setting the stage for the bill to pass by May.
Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain is scheduled to retire this November. “That would be the first opportunity to have a senatorial election in B.C.,” Mr. Les said, hours after tabling the bill in the legislature.
But the NDP opposition raised immediate questions about why Ms. Clark isn’t seizing the agenda herself. “As opposed to a government bill, they pushed out poor John Les with a private member’s bill,” said John Horgan, House Leader for the B.C. NDP.
Mr. Les said he was acting because the bill allows for a quick fix to concerns about the Senate. “There’s a healthy appetite for democratizing something without a great history of democracy,” Mr. Les said in an interview.
If passed, British Columbia would be the first province after Alberta to elect senators, although other provinces have been considering the option. Alberta has held Senate-nominee processes since 1989, with three senators appointed as a result.
As Ms. Clark’s Liberals face the fracturing of their centre-right coalition because of the rise of the B.C. Conservative Party, Senate elections could also be a tactical measure aimed at wooing back right-leaning voters. The Liberals, seeking a fourth term in the May, 2013, election, have been looking for options to bolster their governing coalition in order to avoid vote splitting on the right that could give the NDP an edge at the polls.
Indeed, news of the B.C. move elicited praise from the federal Tories, who are pushing a reform package that includes an elected Senate and term limits. Heritage Minister James Moore, lead minister for B.C., and Tim Uppal, Minister of State for Democratic Reform, issued a joint statement saluting the introduction of the Senate Election Act.
“This announcement today means that British Columbians will have real input into choosing the people who represent our province in the Senate. This is good news for democracy and good news for our province,” Mr. Moore said.
The federal Tories have been encouraging provinces to consult citizens on Senate nominees through the Senate Reform Act, introduced in June, 2011. It calls for nine-year terms for senators, who can currently sit until age 75, as well as for the provinces to elect a roster of potential senators.
Ms. Clark supported a previous iteration of Mr. Les’s bill that died on the order paper last fall, but then said she was concerned about electing senators without additional reform. She was not available Tuesday to explain her current view.
Under Mr. Les’s current bill, candidates could run as independents or members of parties in one of six new Senate electoral districts to be created across the province. It would also allow for Internet voting – a general electoral option Ms. Clark has endorsed.
The bill has an eight-year sunset clause, implemented, said Mr. Les, in hopes of reform to deal with B.C. having fewer Senate seats than such smaller provinces as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia.
Last June, Ms. Clark said she would accept the Harper government’s vision of an elected Senate only if B.C.’s representation was improved. In a single day of meetings in Ottawa, she advanced two reform proposals: Up to 10 more senators for the province to reflect B.C.’s growing economic clout, and limiting the number of senators from regions that are overrepresented.
There are six B.C senators and six each from the three other Western provinces.