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   Ontario Interests At Stake In Trudeau's Recent Senate Moves

 

By Randall White   

The federal Minister of Democratic Institutions Maryam Monsef has recently announced the members of the new Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments that Justin Trudeau’s government has been promising. 

According to the press release it is hoped that the board will be advising on the appointment of two senators for Manitoba, two for Ontario, and one for Quebec by early 2016.   

Even with a rocky economic beginning to the new year, it is worth asking: what does all this mean for the nearly 14 million of us who live in Canada’s most populous province?

To start with, as critics from B.C. Premier Christy Clark to the Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Claude Carignan have stressed, it is not real Senate reform. The Supreme Court has decided that requires a constitutional amendment with support from seven provinces representing 50% of the Canada-wide population. 

Real Senate reform in Canada, it also seems clear from a debate that has been going on since the 1980s, would have two key ingredients. 

First, senators would be democratically elected for a fixed term, as in the Senates of the United States and Australia; and second, the current division of Senate seats among provinces would be somehow improved. 

As matters stand, constitutionally the federal prime minister appoints members of the Senate of Canada — in the name of the Governor General (also appointed by the federal prime minister).

Similarly, as in the U.S. and Australia, our Senate is supposed to strengthen the representation of regional interests in federal institutions.

As matters stand constitutionally here, we have four so-called Senate divisions: Western Canada, Ontario, Quebec, and Atlantic Canada. 

The first three divisions each have 24 members. Atlantic Canada did too until Newfoundland and Labrador joined confederation in 1949, and Atlantic Canada wound up with 30 members. 

Nowadays our three northern territories have one senator each as well, for a total of 24 + 24 + 24 + 30 + 3 = 105 members. The seats for 22 are currently vacant, as Mr. Harper left them at the end of his failed Senate reform pilot project.

Absolutely nothing will change in any of the major details here under the new Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments.

What, then, is actually happening?  

As explained by the press release, the “Advisory Board will be an independent and non-partisan body whose mandate is to provide the Prime Minister with merit-based recommendations on Senate nominations.”

The Board will be chaired by former federal public servant Huguette Labelle. It includes two additional federal members, and then two members from each of the initial three participating provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.  

The Machiavellian interpretation is that all this just provides some interim cover for Prime Minister Trudeau to fill enough of the current 22 Senate vacancies soon enough to prevent undue harassment of government legislation in the upper house. 

(And also render unnecessary Vancouver lawyer Aniz Alani’s court challenge over prolonged Senate vacancies — as the federal government was urging last week as well.) 

Yet in the diversity of Canada today there is no doubt also a more optimistic, "sunny ways" interpretation of the new board for Senate appointments.

To ever achieve even a serious beginning to real Senate reform, we will have to travel some considerable distance from here to there. So whatever else, in the wake of Mr. Harper’s failed but educational pilot project of the past 10 years, the journey has at least started at last.

(And the new advisory board is also just a “first step” in an appointments process that will soon include “an application process open to all Canadians”!)

Ontario should have some special interests in the project.

First, as one of the three initial participating provinces from what almost looks like a reconfigured central Canada (Quebec, Ontario, and Manitoba) — where the largest number of current Senate vacancies exist.

Then there are the two Ontario representatives on the new board: former provincial Deputy Attorney General Murray Segal from Greater Toronto; and Dawn Lavell-Harvard from Akwesasne in eastern Ontario, president of The Native Women's Association of Canada. 

Finally, seven of the current 22 vacancies in the Senate of Canada (almost a third) are in Ontario. Two more Ontario seats will be vacant by late spring this year. Another two Ontario seats will become vacant in 2017, and three more in 2018.

Alberta arguably invented the Triple E Senate in Canada (“elected, equal, and effective,” or what the United States and Australia have already). 

But maybe some workable version of more regionally representative Senate reform will ultimately start from a reconfigured central region that includes Manitoba, and then move east and west.

And even if this never happens, in dealing with the Senate right now, the new government in Ottawa has arguably followed what some believe to be a progressive liberal principle: If you’re going to do something ridiculous that probably does have to be done, at least try to do it in an interesting way. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : January 27, 2016

View all of Randall White's columns
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