Once again, Canada is cleaving politically between East and West, as British Columbia joins Alberta among the ranks of provinces that will send elected senators to Ottawa.
Now that Premier Christy Clark has decided to support a private member’s bill to that effect, and Saskatchewan is also committed in principle, only the NDP government in Manitoba remains unconvinced.
The Alward government in New Brunswick will introduce Senate election legislation this spring. The country is approaching a critical mass of provinces that will be electing senators. For now, however, it is mostly the West, not the East, that is joining in the cause of Senate reform.
“There’s always been a bit of divide between Western Canada and Eastern Canada,” on the issue, said Alberta Senator Bert Brown, who has championed the cause for 30 years. But he remains convinced popular pressure will ultimately persuade other provinces to join.
The Harper government’s Senate Reform Act, currently before the House of Commons, would see senators appointed for one nine-year term, rather than the current rule that allows them to sit until age 75. As well, provinces would be invited to hold elections whenever a Senate post comes vacant.
Under the bill, the prime minister of the day would continue to have final say over who goes to the Red Chamber. But Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to respect the choices of provincial electors, and future heads of government would take great political risks in rejecting them.
Nonetheless, Quebec Premier Jean Charest has vowed to launch a constitutional challenge in the event the Senate bill becomes law, which is almost certain to happen within the next year, despite opposition from the Liberals and NDP and even a few Conservative senators.
One Senate seat in each of New Brunswick, British Columbia and Saskatchewan come vacant this year, and all could send elected senators, joining the two from Alberta already in place.
Steve Patten, a political scientist at University of Alberta, says Senate reform has been bound up in complaints of Western alienation for decades, But he adds that the split is as much ideological as regional. All four provinces that have moved to elect senators have conservative governments in place.
“It’s as much a question of which party is in power” as anything else, he says. If the West is more likely than the East to support Senate reform, then that could also be because conservative governments are more plentiful in the West.
Elected senators could be powerful regional champions, claiming that an elected mandate makes their seat more legitimate than their patronage-appointed counterparts. They can more legitimately sit in cabinet.
As the Senate increasingly splits between elected and appointed members, popular demand for change is bound to grow in other provinces. One day most, or even all, senators could be elected, moving Canada closer to an American-style system where two equally powerful houses of parliament grapple for dominance, often producing gridlock.
Yet to many westerners, at least, anything is preferable to a Senate filled mostly with patronage appointments, little understood and less respected by the general population.
One way or another, an elected upper house could be one of Mr. Harper’s lasting legacies.