By not attaching a Senate vote to this year’s municipal ballot, Premier Ed Stelmach rightly took a step back from seeking to elect the Senate without changing the constitution.
The previous vote was a farce boycotted by two parties and set a record for spoiled ballots. Increasingly, Albertans understand Senate selection votes, added to the constitutional status quo, are worse than the status quo.
Less seen is that an elected Senate, even if preceded by constitutional change, would be no prize. An intergovernmental Senate would be better and may be more feasible.
First, election of the current Senate would weaken Alberta by making more prominent the House where our voice is weakest. Alberta has more population than all Atlantic provinces combined: they have 30 senators to our six. Alberta and B.C. have more population than Quebec but 12 senators to their 24. Seat shares can only be revised by constitutional change, requiring support of Parliament and six provinces. There is no appetite in either region for reducing their shares.
Most Quebec MPs are separatists but we keep separatists out of the Senate. Election would admit them and they could stay until 75.
Senate reform requires plain language. ‘Elected appointee’ is nonsense, a contradiction in terms like ‘dry water’ or ‘sour sugar.’ With or without prior votes, no one becomes senator unless appointed. And ‘one person, one vote’ doesn’t make anyone accountable for what they do after they get there. The current appointed Senate delays for reflection but usually defers to the elected House.
Selection votes, if other provinces follow, may spur constitutional change. More likely, divisions over how to change the Senate will provoke other results based on the logic of political systems.
Continuing to elect appointed senators, without prior agreement on a deadlock breaking process, imperils our form of government. In parliamentary systems, government continuance depends on confidence of the Commons. That leads to strongly party-based voting. Parliament would become paralyzed when a pseudo-elected Senate, unaccountable to voters, does what our appointed one doesn’t: blocks a budget.
Deep integration with the U.S. would be facilitated by making the parliamentary system unworkable, so we abandon the confidence vote and adopt the U.S. system. Or some may hope for annexation after our form of government breaks down.
If we managed to create a deadlock breaking mechanism out of constitutional crisis, it might look like Australia’s, which has an elected Senate in a parliamentary system. Their dispute resolution system doesn’t work well, and includes joint session where the smaller Senate is swamped and outvoted by the other House. Single-chamber decisions would swamp Alberta’s unique interests, and Quebec’s. Proposed in the Charlottetown Accord, that was defeated in a Canada-wide referendum.
Countries with elected senators centralize power. Election would reduce provinces as the voice of regional interests, Alberta’s best line of defence, and reduce the only place where French is a majority.
Former premier Peter Lougheed argued that elected senates don’t work well in parliaments. That’s also why they are so few. In 1982, he proposed an intergovernmental Senate, somewhat resembling the U.S. pre-1913 and modern Germany. Quebec supported that. After Lougheed, Alberta sought an ‘elected appointed’ Senate.
What it seeks would diminish Alberta, threaten Quebec while permitting separatist senators, and imperil our system of government. More likely, Alberta dooms Prime Minister Stephen Harper to minority governments or loss of power.
Lougheed’s ideas deserve a second look. We can start toward them before agreement on details, without re-opening the Constitution prematurely, by working on improved co-operation between the levels of government.
David Baugh, PhD, is an instructor and head of the Political Science Department at Red Deer College.