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The Globe and Mail

The real losers in Harper's Senate reform

Governor-General Michaelle Jean reads the Speech from the Throne to begin the second session of the 39th Parliament in the Senate chamber on Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2007.

There is yet another report in today's Globe that provinces are upset about Stephen Harper's senate reforms. "Eastern Provinces" Quebec and Nova Scotia are opposing the changes on procedural grounds as they "insist that transforming the Senate into an elected body with term limits is tantamount to a constitutional change that would require their blessing."

While these provinces have reason to be upset with Harper, they aren't the ones who should be hopping mad since they won't be the big losers under Harper's proposal.

The Senate reforms Harper has proposed (over and over again, as it has turned out, due to our now annual prorogation day), is the worst possible option for Alberta and British Columbia. Far worse than the status quo of an appointed Senate.

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Harper is proposing that we elect all of our senators but maintain the same distribution of senators across provinces. The reason for this approach is there is no doubt that redistributing Senate representation by province would require provincial consent and constitutional change while electing all senators, Harper argues, can be done without provincial consent.

Even if you accept that Harper can make his proposed changes without the provinces' support (a debatable point), it doesn't mean that it moves Senate reform forward at all for those from Western Canada who care about the issue (ie - the Reform Party that Harper used to represent).

Here's why: if I'm an elected senator, I have both the de facto and de jure right to vote however I want on any piece of legislation. I'm not sure what the counter argument would be - once elected, I have just as much democratic legitimacy as any MP (though in our current parliamentary environment, that's not saying much).

Today, senators have the technical right to vote down legislation but they lack legitimacy to do so. If the Senate did start voting down legislation of any significance under the current system, there would rightly be public outrage. As soon as elections are held, that all changes. (And please spare me the made-up criticisms of the "Liberal dominated Senate" holding up all kinds of Conservative legislation, which has been shown to be a total red herring).

Under the current senate make-up, British Columbia has six senators - roughly one senator per 685,581 people (as per the 2006 census). Alberta also has six senators (one per 548,391 people). New Brunswick and Nova Scotia have 10 each, PEI has four.

The current make-up isn't equal by province or region (Atlantic Canada has 30 senators as compared to, as mentioned, six in B.C., 24 each for Ontario and Quebec - and yes, as a total aside, it is likely the Bloc would win a majority of Quebec's 24 Senate elections) and it certainly doesn't work on a rep-by-pop basis with the two provinces that formed the heart of the original Reform base being the biggest losers on any and every criteria you could use.

I know there are historical reasons for the current senate distribution but that doesn't mean that we should take a massive step backwards hoping to one day take a step forward and call it a victory for Senate reform.

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We need to assume we will be living with Harper's proposed legislation for a long time if it is passed given the difficulties of constitutional reform (something no party is currently proposing) and as such, if I was a Senate reform advocate from British Columbia or Alberta, I would be opposing Harper's proposed legislation as vocally as possible.

(Photo: Tom Hanson/The Canadian Press)

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