No sooner had Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government announced its plan to begin reforming the Senate than B.C. Premier Christy Clark performed what has become a political ritual for B.C. political leaders: she thumbed her nose at the idea.
In an attempt to take political partisanship out of the upper chamber, Trudeau plans to appoint a five-person panel to appoint five independent Senators — not tied to any political party — in the coming year.
While this move may make sense on a number of levels, it does nothing to address the West’s long-held views that the institution’s actual structure is fatally flawed. Hence Clark’s terse missive.
While the Senate has been in the news recently for bad things like expense scandals and the wayward actions of some of those appointed to the upper chamber, the fact is the Senate has been viewed in the West for some time now as cozy private club run by the Eastern establishment, which tolerates — barely it seems — those of us outside of the Toronto-Ottawa power corridor and quaint Atlantic fishing villages.
The problem stems from how the Senate was created in the first place, and how hard it is to make any meaningful changes to it. Originally thought as the house for “sober second thought” on things done by the House of Commons, the Senate has long sounded better on paper than on how it has performed in reality.
A major problem that has emerged in recent times is the fact it is an unelected body, whose members are appointed by the government of the day. That has seen patronage considerations often dominating decisions on who gets in.
WATCH: Justin Trudeau promised to reform the Senate and, on the same day Parliament reopened, he delivered. The Liberals are changing the process of appointing new senators, so it will be based on merit and anyone will be able to apply for the job. Mike Le Couteur reports.
Trudeau is attempting to address the patronage problem. But he can’t tackle the other big issue: regional inequality in the Senate.
The Constitution designates a set number of Senators be allocated on a regional basis (24 to each of Quebec, Ontario, the Maritimes and the West, with the rest sprinkled around the territories and Newfoundland).
Like most “upper houses” in various forms of government around the world, it was never considered to be a chamber whose representational make-up would be based on population (“rep by pop”), since that concept is what most “lower houses” are based on.
For example, in the United States, each state is assigned two senators no matter how many live in it. So barren Wyoming (population: 584,000) has the same senate representation as bustling California (38.8 million) – but in the rep by pop House of Representatives, California gets 53 congressional seats while Wyoming gets a single seat.
Over time, the inherent inequality of the Canadian Senate’s membership became more and more pronounced as the country’s population not only grew, but shifted geographically in dramatic fashion.
And so today we are left with the seemingly bizarre situation where the populations of western provinces like B.C. and Alberta have grown enormously since they entered Confederation, but they are doomed — likely forever — to always have substantially fewer Senators than the relatively sparsely-populated Maritime provinces.
Nova Scotia and New Brunswick each have 10 Senators, compared to B.C. and Alberta’s mere six appointments. Yet, none of the Atlantic provinces have more than one million residents, while B.C. alone has more than 4.5 million.
Translating this to a per capita basis, this means New Brunswick has one Senator for every 75,000 residents and tiny Prince Edward Island one Senator for every 36,000 Anne of Green Gables fans.
B.C.? Well, it gets one Senator for every 775,000 people.
Don’t expect any changes to how the Senate structured, though. That’s because the dreaded “constitutional amending formula” would kick into gear, and it requires any change to the constitution to be supported by at least seven provinces that have at least 50 per cent of the population.
Given that there is absolutely no motivation for any of the Atlantic provinces to give up one of the few advantages they hold over the Western and Central Canadian provinces, the chances of constitutional change appears minimal, if not impossible.
Then there’s the fact that the odds of Canada’s premiers willingly entering into any round of constitutional negotiations may be worse than those of the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup in your lifetime.
This is why a western premier like Clark was quick to dismiss any attempt by the Trudeau government to simply rework how the status quo — with its entrenched inequality — is arrived at.
Of course, B.C. (and all the provinces) are irrelevant in many respects in this issue. The PM controls all appointments and the provinces have zero power to do anything about them.
But that won’t stop premiers from making political hay out of bashing the Senate.
Clark is not the first B.C. premier to take this position, and she certainly won’t be the last.