Part of Reinventing Parliament, a series examining how to make Parliament relevant again. With thanks to www.samaracanada.com.
Bill C-7 establishes a framework for an elected Senate, limiting the number of years a senator can serve to nine. But by having senators chosen from a list of nominees elected at the provincial level and representing more than a dozen parties with opposing regional interests, the workings of the Senate could be substantially transformed – and chaotic.
Explainer: what the Senate is
The Senate is made up of 105 senators who serve until the age of 75, all of them appointed by the Prime Minister of the day. The Senate’s primary role is to consider legislation passed by the House of Commons before it becomes law, and has the capacity to return bills to the House for amendment. Ostensibly unshackled by the partisanship of the House of Commons, where re-election is never far from an MP’s mind, the Senate is meant to be a “chamber of independent, sober second thought.”
The 105 Senate seats are not distributed across the country proportionately. According to the Senate’s website, it was “created by the fathers of Confederation to counterbalance representation by population” in the House. The 105 seats are divided into four regional blocks of 24 seats each: Ontario, Quebec, the Maritimes, and the four western provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador has six seats, while each of the territories has one.
Bill C-7 does not change any of that. Instead, the bill stipulates that the Prime Minister “must consider” a list of nominees selected in provincial and territorial elections. These senators would then serve for nine years, at which point they would be replaced from a new list of nominees.
Most attention has been paid to the idea of term limits, but the stipulation that the nominees be elected at the provincial level has the potential to make the Senate a very different place.
Only Alberta has held senatorial elections. Doug Black, appointed on Jan. 25, is the most recent winner of a senatorial election to be appointed to the Senate. He won 16 per cent of the vote in the province’s 2012 election, or 39 per cent of senatorial ballots cast. He was the top Progressive Conservative senatorial candidate, and will caucus with the Conservatives in the Senate.
The goal of Bill C-7 is for all provinces and territories to follow suit, holding senatorial elections at the same time as their general provincial elections. These senatorial elections are to be administered by the electoral officials in each province and the campaigns are to be governed by provincial electoral law. One of the clauses reads that “to be a candidate for election as a Senate nominee...a person must be nominated by a registered provincial or territorial political party.” They can also run as independents.
Provincial parties in a federal chamber
That means that if all provinces and territories begin holding senatorial elections, the next nominees would hail from provincial political parties, not federal ones. That could mean senators elected under the banners of the B.C. Liberals (a party more closely aligned with the federal Conservatives than the federal Liberals), the Saskatchewan Party, the Coalition Avenir Québec, or the Parti Québécois. When the current crop of appointed senators all retire or resign, and the Senate is filled with senators elected at the provincial level, will the Red Chamber function any differently?
To get an idea of what such a Senate might look like, I allocated the Senate’s 105 seats proportionately according to the results of the last election in each province, always rounding-up. That has the effect of giving more popular parties more Senate seats than they would otherwise receive. As Bill C-7 stipulates that voters select from a list of names, voting for as many candidates as the number of nominees that need to be selected, this would seem to be a plausible assumption.
The result is a rather unusual and potentially unworkable assortment of parties. The largest contingent would be from the country’s Progressive Conservative parties: nine from Ontario, five from New Brunswick, four from Newfoundland and Labrador, three each from Alberta and Manitoba, two from Nova Scotia, and one from Prince Edward Island. Conceivably, these 27 PC senators would form a block closely aligned with the federal Conservatives, and they would likely be joined by four Saskatchewan Party senators and one from the Yukon Party.
It is difficult to determine, however, how cohesive this block would be. Regional interests would be paramount. If this sort of scenario had occurred during Danny Williams’s time as Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, would he have commanded his PC senators to leave the Conservative caucus? Would the Tory senators from Alberta and Saskatchewan split from those in Ontario and Atlantic Canada when it comes to, for example, resource development?
The makeup of a new Senate: no majority
Putting aside these questions, the Conservative block would likely find allies in the seven senators from the Coalition Avenir Québec and the three each from the B.C. Liberal and Wildrose parties. The degree to which this block of allies would side with the Tories in the senate could vary from issue to issue, but already the complications of this sort of arrangement are plain to see.
The Liberals would probably have less trouble keeping their senators together. The Liberal caucus would number some 20 senators in this scenario, 10 from Ontario, four from New Brunswick, and three each from Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. But with allegiances to their provincial parties, they might not always side with their federal cousins. The eight Quebec Liberal senators would likely ally with the Liberal senators from the rest of the country, but surely not on every issue. In fact, on some questions the Quebec Liberal senators might find themselves closer to the Conservative block, or even the NDP’s.
Their block would likely be the most cohesive, as the federal and provincial New Democratic parties are directly affiliated (that is not the case with every provincial Liberal party). The NDP senatorial caucus would number 21, five each from Ontario and Nova Scotia, three each from British Columbia and Manitoba, two each from Newfoundland and Labrador and Saskatchewan, and one from New Brunswick.
Eleven other senators would find no direct allies in the Senate: eight from the Parti Québécois, one from Québec Solidaire, and two independents from Nunavut and the Northwest Territories (neither of which have political parties). The idea of senators from the Parti Québécois is hard enough to imagine, the idea of them considering federal legislation is even stranger.
This fractious Senate would have little resemblance to the make-up of the House of Commons. For instance, the federal Conservatives won the most votes in Manitoba, Prince Edward Island, and Ontario in the 2011 federal election, while the Liberals were elected in Ontario and PEI and the NDP in Manitoba in the provincial elections of that same year.
Senators would be more likely to divide on an issue-by-issue basis rather than by party line, especially if the influence of their provincial party leaders is strong. Senators theoretically on the same side as the government might oppose its own legislation. No block would be likely to command a reliable majority of seats in the Senate at any time, and party discipline would be virtually non-existent.
It might be the recipe for an unworkable body clogging up the parliamentary system. Or, by de-coupling the Senate from the governing party in the House of Commons, perhaps it would become a true chamber of sober second thought.
Éric Grenier writes about politics and polls at ThreeHundredEight.com.