Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A Senate for Saskatchewan

Premier Brad Wall's announcement that Saskatchewan plans to hold elections to select candidates for appointment to the Senate of Canada makes one wonder: what about a Senate of Saskatchewan?

If Western conservatives believe so much in bicameralism, why don't they act on their principles? It would be easy for the conservative majority governments in Alberta and Saskatchewan to create upper houses in each of their provinces. They could put their principles into action and make their provincial senates fully triple-E. Half the seats in the Saskatchewan Senate would come from north of Prince Albert; half the seats in Alberta's new upper house would come from north of Edmonton. To be "effective," (the third E in Triple-E), the new provincial senates would have full powers to reject legislation passed by the (southern) majorities in the lower houses.

Of course it will never happen, and I'm not serious in proposing it. I'm not that keen on bicameral parliaments with powerful upper houses. I raise the spectre only to underline the inconsistency of the Triple-E Senate campaign. Its supporters are keen to have a powerful Senate in Ottawa, because they believe it will assist them in hobbling the will of the majority in the representative House of Commons in Ottawa. But they would not be willing to see a similar institution hobbling the majority will in their own provincial legislatures. Howzat?

Triple-E advocates may say it's different in Ottawa, that a Triple-E Senate is necessary to strengthen federalism by giving the provinces a direct say in the national Parliament. But federalism is expressed by Sections 91 and 92 of the Constitition, the sections that set out the respective powers of the national government and the provincial governments. The provinces are already powerful by virtue of their constitutional powers. There is no necessity within federalism to give the provinces a veto in national policy by turning over the national upper house to them.

The rationale for the Senate was bicameralism, to create a chamber of sober second thought. And while the constitition-makers of the 1860s valued sober second thought, they carefully hedged in the Senate to ensure that it could never defeat the truly representative legislature, the lower house. To ensure its weakness, they made it non-elective.

If the Triple-E advocates believe so strongly in bicameralism (and that was the message being preached by Saskatchewan's attorney general when I heard him on CBC Radio yesterday), they should follow their principles and endow their provincial legislatures with upper houses first. That would truly be federalism in action: testing the idea out in a few provinces and comparing those that do it with those that don't.

A Senate in Ottawa that is "elected" but unreformed (Nova Scotia 10 senators, British Columbia 6, and so on) will be powerful, but it will never be legitimate. The best argument establishing this comes from Gordon Gibson of British Columbia, and it's doubly persuasive because Gibson was one of the authors of Regional Representation, the 1981 book that launched the Triple-E campaign. In his 2004 Fraser Institute study Challenges in Senate Reform (downloadable here), Gibson vigorously attacks the idea that we could make the Senate elective without otherwise reforming it -- precisely what Premier Wall (and Prime Minister Harper) are intent on doing.

Late Note: To read how and why the constitution-makers in the 1860s designed a weak senate to strengthen parliamentary democracy, you should read my 1867: How the Fathers Made a Deal. link here.
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