Tuesday, October 11, 2011

NB Considers Senate Elections

A rather unexpected breakthrough in the Senate reform debate. Looks like, in addition to the two elected Senate nominees from Alberta, that actually got to be appointed to the Upper Chamber, we may soon have one from New Brunswick:
Premier David Alward says he'd like to have new legislation in place to allow New Brunswickers to elect their own senators by the time a vacancy comes up next year.

"We know there are three Senate positions that will be up over the next couple of years - one in 2012 and two in 2014. We believe that the opportunity is there for New Brunswickers to have a voice," he told reporters on Thursday.

Alward acknowledged the government has "a lot of work to do" as a team works on the issue, but he stressed his desire to bring it forward "in a timely fashion."

Allowing such legislative change, he said, "is vital for the future of our province."
He's the first premier in Atlantic Canada to support Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Senate Reform Act, introduced in June, that will see senators' terms limited to nine years and establish a series of guidelines for provinces to voluntarily hold Senate elections.
So, if David Alward doesn't back down under the pressure of all those who oppose Senate reform, then New Brunswick's very first Senate election will take place in just seven months. Then, we're likely to witness the very first Senate election taking place in Saskatchewan (following the retirement of Robert Peterson, which is scheduled for next October). And of course, Alberta may finally hold its 4th Senate Nominee election, the one that has been put on hold by Ed Stelmach. So we may actually have as many as 5 elected Senators from 3 different provinces - in just a year or so...

But doesn't this require a constitutional amendment? Not at this point. Currently, the Prime Minister has the right to advise just anyone (who meets the property and residence requirements, of course) for appointment to the Senate. If he chooses, out of all the candidacies available, to advise the person who happened to be elected in a non-binding Senate nominee election - that's perfectly within his powers. Now, when it comes to making those elections binding, so that no future Prime Minister could ever choose to ignore the popular vote and appoint his proteges instead - there too, the answer is not so obvious.

So far, Harper keeps trying to avoid touching the constitution by giving the process a different name - instead of electing Senators directly, voters merely compile the list of nominees, from which the Prime Minister could choose his candidates for the actual Senate appointments. So, since the Senators, technically, are still going to be appointed by the Governor General, on the advice of the Prime Minister (except that his choice will be limited to those elected by popular vote,) since there will be no formal shift from appointed Senators to directly elected ones, Harper suggests that no constitutional amendment is required.

And, most likely, he is right. (After all, he's not a newbie in politics and he certainly knows what he's talking about.) Except - why wouldn't he go for a full scale constitutional amendment, if the opportunity is there? Yes, Dalton McGuinty and Jean Charest will never agree to the amendment, but the government can go directly to the people, put the question to a referendum and, with some 70% support for directly elected Senate, satisfying the requirement of the 7/50 formula wouldn't be a problem.

Yes, that will take much longer than merely passing a bill; we may even have to wait until the next Federal election for the referendum to take place. But if the choice is between a half-measure - that could be ignored by the provinces, misunderstood by the voters and abused by the Prime Minister, and a full-scale reform - that will mandate the same rules for all provinces, ensure clarity for the voters and get the Prime Minister out of the Senate appointment process - it makes more sense to choose the latter.

Meanwhile, we better take advantage of the Prime Minister that is committed to appointing elected Senate nominees and start holding these elections. Alberta and Saskatchewan have already passed the required legislation, New Brunswick is looking forward to join them - and hopefully more provinces follow suit once all those elected Senate nominees start taking their seats...

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