“ Our government has made a commitment to support open government and this act provides another tangible example of following through on that commitment,” said John Les, after introducing a bill that provides for election of B.C.’s representatives in the Senate.
Senator Gerry St. Germain turns 75 on Nov. 6, hitting the age of compulsory retirement after close to 20 years in the Red Chamber. That will open up a Senate posting that could be filled with an election under legislation introduced in the B.C. Legislature earlier this week by backbencher John Les.
Mr. Les, the MLA for Chilliwack, is optimistic that the Senate Election Act will be passed into law within three months and an election to replace Mr. St. Germain will be held before the end of the year. Without constitutional change in Ottawa, the final decision on whether the candidate elected by B.C. moves into Mr. St. Germain’s seat would remain with the federal cabinet. The successful candidate would be B.C.’s recommendation to the federal cabinet on who should be appointed.
Mr. Les says the bill, which has the support of Premier Christy Clark, reflects a consensus of opinion based on discussions with government staff and caucus members. “People always prefer a democratic transparent election process versus a backroom appointee type process,” he said in an interview. “Everyone recognizes there are further improvements needed to the Senate. Let’s just say this is perhaps a first step in an incremental process.”
But will it open up government?
The proposed legislation provides for the province to be divided into six districts – Vancouver Island, Southern Interior, Northern British Columbia, South of the Fraser, North of the Fraser and Vancouver. However, Senate elections will not be held across the province once the bill is approved. The only election would be to chose a candidate to replace Mr. St. Germain.
Mr. Les anticipates that Vancouver Island, the only area of the province that is not now associated with one of the province’s senators, would vote for Mr. St Germain’s successor. Among the current roster of senators, Larry Campbell, Mobina Jaffer and Yonah Martin are from the Lower Mainland, Richard Neufeld is from the North and Nancy Greene Raine is from the Thompson-Okanagan-Kootenay area. If the five senators keep their seats, the earliest date for another Senate election would be 2018, when Ms. Greene Raine would be forced to retire.
A provision in the bill requiring online voting has also attracted some criticism. Political scientist Dennis Pilon, of York University, said the current state of online voting is “a horror show.” Experts have raised concerns about the security of voting, saying the process could not be made tamper-proof from hackers. Also, secrecy may be harder to enforce, allowing for undue influence by family members or others.
Bruce Hallsor, who co-chaired the group advocating electoral reform in the B.C. referendum on proportional representation, raised concerns about giving more credibility to the Senate while B.C. does not have its appropriate share of seats in the institution. “At least when it is not legitimate, it does not matter that we are not fairly represented. If more provinces do this [elect senators] I think it is a recipe for disaster.”
Mr. Les anticipated that issue, including a provision in the bill to kill the law after eight years. “This really is serving notice on the federal government. We’re electing senators, but you have to rectify the imbalance,” he said.
But putting a time-limit on the right to vote sounds like something less than a commitment to open government. At any rate, backbenchers rarely spearhead the process of making new laws. It seems more likely a provincial cabinet minister – rather than a backbencher – would have introduced the legislation if Senate reform was really “another tangible example” of a government commitment.