Caligula’s Horse and Senate Reform

Legend has it that the Emperor Caligula once appointed his favourite horse Incitatus to the Roman Senate. When he recently named three rejected Conservative MP candidates to the Upper House, our own prime minister didn’t go quite that far, but he ruffled more than a few feathers. It was, without question, a blatantly partisan move. But it may also have been a very clever one: with his actions, Harper has demonstrated, reductio ad absurdum, the need for Senate reform in Canada.

Mr. Harper has shown a preoccupation with the Senate ever since he began his political career in the Reform Party. The party’s base in Alberta has long called for an elected, equal and effective Senate that would strengthen the West’s representation in Ottawa and counterbalance the influence of Quebec and Ontario. The issue is important enough to Alberta that the province elected its own senators-in-waiting. In 1990, Brian Mulroney felt obliged to appoint two of them, Stan Waters and Bert Brown, to the Upper House. Harper’s previous reformist attempts were thwarted by his parliamentary minority, but this obstacle was removed on May 2. And now the question of Senate reform will no doubt make an appearance in the Speech from the Throne.

Harper’s modest proposal

So what should we expect?  Mr. Harper won’t be able to completely overhaul the Upper House. It would take a constitutional amendment to alter the distribution of seats, change the way senators are selected or modify their powers. The procedure is slow, cumbersome and risky, and any change requires the formal support of seven provinces representing more than 50% of Canada’s population. It would mean launching a new round of constitutional negotiations with Quebec. And for defenders of the status quo, that can of worms is best left on the shelf.

All things considered, the government’s current proposal seems modest. Right now, senators are appointed by the governor general on the prime minister’s recommendation. In theory, there is nothing to stop the prime minister from consulting the public before making his recommendations. These “consultations” could be formalized through a popular ballot. This could be done in tandem with federal elections and would create, in practice, an elected Senate. Also, by limiting senators’ terms to eight years, the Upper House would become accountable and democratic.

At first glance, it seems like a brilliant idea. We would avoid the headache of a constitutional amendment, and rectify one of the most glaring deficiencies in our political system. Mr. Harper would be hailed as having solved a problem as old as Confederation.

The provinces’ reaction

But Quebec and Ontario have already voiced their opposition. And together, the two central provinces could derail Ottawa’s plans.

Ontario, on the one hand, has nothing to gain from this type of reform. The seats in the House of Commons are distributed according to population, and Canada’s most crowded province is wary of any Senate reform that could dilute its influence, regardless of the potential for improved equality or efficiency. Dalton McGuinty has instead suggested abolishing the Upper House altogether.

As for Jean Charest, he isn’t opposed in principle to  “modernizing” the Senate. After all, the demographic weight of the Belle Province is on the wane, and a reformed Upper House could compensate Quebec for the inevitable loss of seats in the House of Commons. It could also help guarantee the protection of Quebec culture and the French language. The Charlottetown Accord was headed in that direction already. The problem is, Ottawa is trying to impose its will without consulting one of the country’s founding communities. The Quebec Minister for Intergovernmental Affairs and the Canadian Francophonie, Pierre Moreau, has declared that

“any amendment to the Senate puts at risk the balance that was created when the Confederation pact was sealed, and that is why it requires a constitutional amendment and not a unilateral act passed by the House of Commons.”

Some argue that Harper’s proposal is unconstitutional, and the province will no doubt dispute it in court. However, the most serious problem is symbolic. By going it alone, Ottawa risks repeating the insult of the 1982 unilateral patriation of the constitution, a traumatic event that is still lodged in the collective memory of Quebeckers. Harper’s project may well revive sovereignist sentiments and help propel the PQ to power in the next Quebec provincial election in 2013.

At the same time, there is no guarantee the West would be satisfied with an elected but still unequal Senate. Under Harper’s plan, Alberta would continue to hold only six seats, which seems unfair considering both Nova Scotia and New Brunswick currently have ten each.

This overhaul, moreover, would have no effect on the powers of the Upper House. It would remain subordinate to its Lower House. Sure, the Senate can put forward its own bills, but these can’t have any financial ramifications and they must still be approved by the House of Commons. It’s true the Senate can veto House of Commons bills, but this doesn’t ever constitute a motion of non-confidence, and any rejected bill can still be passed by the House of Commons 180 days later. So in this sense, the Senate’s power would remain very limited even after the proposed reform. Its role would consist of improving House of Commons bills and revising regulations adopted by federal departments. Historically, our Upper House has also served as an institutionalized lobby (funded by taxpayers!) for business interests. After the reform, the Canadian Senate still wouldn’t be the counterweight Albertans are calling for.

Ultimately, this kind of piecemeal reform could wind up disappointing Alberta, attacking Ontario and angering Quebec. It would result in a fair amount of political discord for comparatively small democratic gains. If Harper takes us down this road he could miss the opportunity for a genuine renewal of Canadian federalism.

But let me leave you with an even hotter topic for your water-cooler chats. What would Mr. Harper do if Quebeckers “advised” him to appoint sovereigntist senators? Would he recommend them to the governor general, or would he feel forced to undermine the new constitutional convention he hopes to establish? If he is truly committed to Senate democratization, the Prime Minister will have no choice. He may be forced to publicly acknowledge the political legitimacy of the “separatist parties” he once attacked so vehemently. In the end, our fellow Albertans may well prefer Incitatus to an Honorable Senator Duceppe.

Translated from the original French by Jamie McLennan. © 2011 Gaston Murdock

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