Thursday, June 23, 2011

Bill C-7 And Its Vision For Senate Reform

Unlike so many previous attempts, we have just one Senate reform bill this time. Bill C-7 (hopefully this number brings good luck for the Senate reform cause,) addresses both the Senate term limits and the method, by which Senate nominees should be chosen.

So, first and foremost, the bill proposes non-renewable 9-year term for Senators. Sitting Senators, appointed before 2008 election, will be exempt and for those appointed by Harper, the 9 year term will commence from the day the bill comes into force, not from the actual appointment. This, along with the provision which allows a Senator whose term was interrupted to be considered for reappointment for the remainder of his term, should address whatever concerns the sitting Senators may have about being forced into early retirement.

After all, considering that it may take at least a year or two for the bill to pass - the earliest end of term retirement won't take place before late 2021 or 2022. And, with the mandatory retirement age of 75 remaining in force regardless of the term limits, 67 sitting Senators (2 out of 3, including about half of those appointed by Harper) are scheduled to retire on or before that date anyway. In fact, by that date, there will be only 15 Senators left to whom the term limit won't apply. The last of them to retire is Pierrette Ringuette - on December 31, 2030, allowing the transition to a fixed-term Senate to take place even faster than it took to fully phase in the mandatory retirement age.

Then, to address the concern that with the 9 year term in place, a 2-term Prime Minister gets the right to reappoint almost the entire Upper Chamber, the bill mandates that should a province choose to hold Senate nominee elections - those elections should be binding, restricting the choice of whoever are the Governor General and the Prime Minister at the time, to the list of those elected.

When outlining the framework for Senate election, the bill basically copies the Alberta model: Elections are administered by the provincial electoral commission and the nominees are elected by block voting, using the provincial political party affiliations. Using the Alberta model also addresses the issue of casual vacancies - with the list of Senate nominees prepared for up to 6 years in advance, ahead-of-schedule vacancies could be filled with no need for a by-election. The province may need to advance the vote to replenish the list of Senate nominees, but even then they should have enough time to hold it in conjunction with the next scheduled election, rather than holding a special election on a separate date.

The problem however is that not only the bill proposes the Alberta model - it actually dictates it to the smallest details. Probably the only thing the bill doesn't regulate is the campaign funding. That is left for the provinces. As for the rest - the bill sets the number of signatures, required for nomination (100 signatures in a province, be that Ontario or PEI,) the duration of the nomination period, the time frame in which a candidate could announce his decision to withdraw and even the voting method - to the slightest details.

Section 22 mandates that if only one nominee is being elected - it should be the one who wins the plurality and if several candidates are elected - then it should be that number of candidates with the most votes. That not only rules out the Single Transferable Vote, let alone other forms of proportional representation, but also disallows other options, such as electing each nominee on a separate ballot.

Section 35(1)(a) goes even further, mandating that the returning officer must instruct voters to mark an X next to the candidate's name... As if the provinces didn't know how to hold an election. Here in New Brunswick we use block voting to elect city councilors, but instead of marking an X we fill in the ovals on the machine-readable ballots. By going that far in setting instructions, bill C7 effectively prevents the use of vote tabulation machines, let alone preferential voting.

That is not only obsolete (after all, the provinces know how to conduct a vote and compile a list of democratically elected nominees) but is certain to strengthen the position of those who claim that changing the method of appointing Senators infringes with the provinces' rights. Bill C-7 gives them all the arguments they need - it's all there. This excessive regulation thus can greatly increase the opposition to the reform, which in turn will leave nothing but the NDP proposal: to declare Senate an obsolete body and to abolish it altogether.

So, while the vision for the Senate reform, outlined in bill C-7 makes great sense, the bill itself still has to be worked on to remove all those intrusive provisions, allow for proportional representation and preferential voting and let the provinces decide for themselves how many signatures a candidate would need for nomination.

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