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THE SALON

The Salon is ONW's weekly gathering place where three of Canada's brightest and most respected political strategists - Rick Anderson, Anne McGrath and Richard Mahoney - come together to analyze national issues affecting Ontario.


Rick Anderson:

Glad to see the Prime Minister doing more to advance the decades-old file on Senate reform. There are hardly any democracies left, anywhere in the world, with a appointed legislative body; change is long long overdue. And given the array of provincial positions, he is smart to ask the Supreme Court for some guidance as to what is possible.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Senate Reform is one of those issues that seems easy to promise when you are in Opposition ("I will never appoint another Senator" said Stephen Harper, and then appointed 50-plus when in government). I agree with Rick that he was wise to ask the Supremes for guidance. If he had only listened to the Liberals, who have been telling him that since 2007, he might have advanced the decades old file, as Rick puts it.

 

Anne McGrath:

It's pretty hard for either the Conservatives or the Liberals to claim any virtue on this file. I had hopes for the Prime Minister before forming government but the endless appointments have tarnished any claims that the Conservatives could make. The NDP has always argued for abolition and I think that we should abolish it and then consider whether there can be any role for an upper House that is democratic, representative and not tied to the government in power.

 

Rick Anderson:

Yikes, so the NDP would first abolish the existing Senate, requiring a constitutional amendment, and then reinvent a new kind of Senate, requiring yet another constitutional amendment? That sounds like a long and winding road to not getting anything done.

 

Richard Mahoney:

Agreed, abolishing and then starting over doesn't make much sense. On the substance of the issue, there are two important principles, I think. First, that the Senate should be elected. Second, that it was intended to be the voice of the regions in our national Parliament.

So that means a reformed Senate would, by definition, under-represent Ontario, in terms of the notion of representation by population. Regional equality, whereby each region of the country has the same amount of Senators, or provincial equality (the "Triple E") are the two models most often discussed. Both pose challenges for Ontario, and Ontario governments.

 

Anne McGrath:

The current composition of the Senate is disgraceful. While there are worthy women and men serving and some good work is produced, the never-ending appointment of failed candidates and party loyalists discredits much of the positives. I think that reform hasn't worked, and in current circumstances, won't work. It should be abolished and replaced.

 

Rick Anderson:

A bi-cameral system - the opportunity for second thought - is a good idea. And Richard's two principles are the right framework: elected, and regionally representative. Harper has consistently offered to take the election of Senators at face value, and has consistently respected voters' selections where provinces (e.g. Alberta) have held elections, even if those elected are not the Prime Minister's partisan allies. These are good steps, and what he is doing now is building upon this framework in  a practical fashion.

 

Richard Mahoney:

I try not to overtly agree with the Prime Minister too often, but appointing Senators "elected" by provincial elections does give them legitimacy, and is preferable in many ways to the alternative. That said, he has quite happily appointed dozens and dozens of partisans, and has yet to appoint a true adornment to the Senate, or a partisan of another party, as his predecessor Paul Martin did (Hugh Segal, Nancy Ruth and others). If he did so, he would have a lot more credibility to be the voice of reform that he promised to be.

As I said above, he should have been wise enough to refer this question to the Supreme Court over six years ago, when the Liberals suggested it. He has also steadfastly refused to discuss this with the provinces. This is bizarre, because he has to do so, if he really wants to reform the Senate, and therefore the Constitution.

 

Anne McGrath:

I think that we all agree the current situation is unacceptable and that reform is needed. I would go a bit farther towards abolition but do accept arguments about the benefits of a bi-cameral upper House. The way that appointments have been made, particularly in the last couple of years, appear to be a "giving up" and an acceptance of the status quo. I think that's more than unfortunate.

 

Rick Anderson:

So, we agree that if we are to have a bi-cameral legislature, it should be elected, not appointed. Or, failing that, it should be abolished (the PM has also said that). And, that if it exists (as it does), it should be regionally representative, not rep-by-pop (that's the House). That's quite a lot of Senate reform to agree on; you can see a path forward from here.

The question is how much provincial concurrence - hard to achieve - is actually necessary in order to achieve what kinds of reforms. This is what the PM has sought the Court's opinion on. It would be easiest if more provinces started holding Senate elections; the Senate could be 100% elected in not too many years that way. Easiest way forward.


Richard Mahoney:

There are many more difficult questions: First, what constitutes a region? BC and Alberta are currently under-represented in the Senate. So would BC and Yukon constitute a region in a reformed, elected Senate? Would the Prairies? Atlantic Canada? There will be many disagreements there as everyone already feels under-represented.

Secondly, how effective would the "new" Senate be? Would it have the same powers as the existing Senate, and be able to veto legislation passed by the Commons? If so, would any Ontario Premier, or other leading politician here, agree to that constraint? It would take a national conversation, and a consensus would have to be built. It would likely require a referendum.

That means two things:

1) Prime Minister Harper will never do that. He is not exactly the model of a consensus building democrat.

2) It is a pretty tall order for any PM to lead such a debate, with all the risks involved. I think we are stuck with a hodge podge status quo, some elected, some not, or abolition... Maybe Anne's model of abolition is the more practical solution .


Rick Anderson:

Richard, as you likely know, the Senate is mostly composed of four equal regions of 24 Senators each, plus a few extra for Newfoundland. The representation part is not as far away as we have imagined it.


Anne McGrath:

If we agree that part of the role of the Senate is to play a check and balance function then democratic elections would be essential in order for any upper House to have a mandate. While this debate may seem somewhat esoteric, it is actually very populist and grassroots in western Canada.

Do the Conservatives feel that now they are government there is less need for real, fundamental reform because they are now in power? I sense a real diminution amongst Conservatives to drive for reform and this may give fuel to a renewed call for abolition as we watch the stacking of the Senate, the expense issues, and the lockstep with the government's agenda.


Rick Anderson:

The difference between Conservatives' position today vs. earlier is that many are more focussed on Elected and Effective than on Equal, which may be a constitutional bridge too far. (So too may be abolition.)


Anne McGrath:

If we started with a referendum on abolition, which could pass, it would be hard for provinces, current senators, and government to resist. That would open the door to a restart with an institution that is democratic, has a mandate, and could play a concrete and practical role.


You can follow The Salon's strategists on Twitter:

Rick Anderson: @RickAnderson

Anne McGrath: @OttawaAnne

Richard Mahoney: @RicMahoney

About The Salon (Anderson, Mcgrath, Mahoney)

Rick Anderson is former senior advisor to Reform Party Opposition leader Preston Manning; Anne McGrath was Chief of Staff to the late NDP leader Jack Layton; and Richard Mahoney, former Liberal advisor to Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.
Posted date : February 06, 2013

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