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A provincially elected Senate

Upper house can link Ottawa with the provinces

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Manitoba's past premiers -- Schreyer, Roblin, Campbell and others -- stared silently down from oil paintings last Saturday as one by one, senators from Ottawa and citizens from around the city, around the province and as far away as Edmonton and Montreal stepped to the lectern. There they urged an all-party committee of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly to let Manitobans elect senators.

It was, when you think about it, extraordinary.

Three Manitoba senators, one senator from Alberta, a federal minister and about 30 citizens at large in one room, on a day off, advising members of the Manitoba legislature.

Almost never do senators consult the legislators of their home province, even on weekdays. That too is extraordinary when you think about it, because the one thing the Canadian Constitution demands of all senators is to represent their province in Parliament. If they actually did this, conferring with their home legislature would be an almost daily event.

The committee also heard from some who want the Senate abolished, and others suggesting better methods of appointment. Members of the all-party committee, however, politely steered them toward what they have been mandated by the legislative assembly to answer: How best can Manitobans elect senators?

So far, only the province of Alberta offers its residents this right. The rest allow the prime minister to pick the senators he wants. As we saw in December, most prime-ministerial nominees are little-known party stalwarts, accompanied by an eminent Canadian or two for appearance's sake.

As senators-elect for Alberta, my colleague, Betty Unger and I, had come from Edmonton to advise the committee how Alberta's elections worked the three times since 1989 our province has held them.

Citing official figures, we showed that almost everyone who cast a ballot in the Alberta election of 2004 voted as well in the accompanying Senate race, which cost an extra 81 cents per eligible voter. We commented that it was unfortunate that then-prime minister Paul Martin ignored the 2.2 million Senate votes cast by Albertans and filled our province's seats instead with his own personal favourites.

Bert Brown, the front-runner in the 2004 Senate race, was appointed two years ago by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when an Alberta seat unexpectedly fell vacant. Betty Unger and I, notwithstanding over half a million Alberta votes, will not be summoned before our elective mandates expire next year; Martin made sure of that. His appointees are all secure into the 2020s.

The Manitoba Senate election committee treated all presenters, regardless of view, with impressive intelligence and respect, and in some cases great patience. Its members are a credit to your province.

All of Saturday's presentations really turned on one question: "What is the Senate's job?"

Good question, to which there are only three possible answers.

Those who would abolish the Senate assume it has no useful role whatever, but they immediately encounter two problems. Even if it is useless, the Senate is cemented in place, effectively forever, by the Constitution Acts of 1867 and 1982; it can be reformed but not removed.

Moreover, why do most of the world's most successful nations, and almost all successful federations, have two national chambers, not one? Abolitionists skirt both these points, because they are, I think, unanswerable.

Others defend an appointed Senate as a useful adviser applying "sober second thought" to national decisions. This, too, encounters problems, because it reduces the Senate -- as Stephen Harper has said -- to "just another appointed federal body among many."

Our system requires every national law to be proclaimed with the "advice and consent" of both houses of Parliament. Because it is unelected, an appointed Senate lacks the moral authority to withhold consent, and therefore cannot really be seen as giving it. "Yes" means nothing if there can't be "no".

The third position is that the main task of the Senate is to represent the provinces in Parliament. It's why Canada's founders established the Senate in the first place, the reason it was given constitutional powers equal to those of the House of Commons, the main reason virtually all federations have second chambers, and the only purpose for the institution cited in the Constitution (Sec. 22).

If the Senate is to effectively represent the rights and interests of all provinces in national decisions, it must be elected via provincial parties in provincial elections. This is what Alberta has done and what Saskatchewan is about to do. Manitoba should join in.

Provinces must quickly occupy this field. If the elections are federal, federally elected senators will take direction from national party leaders in the Commons, just as the appointed ones do now, and nothing much will change.

Without a Senate truly representative of the 10 provinces, Confederation devolves into what it has become: national parties in Parliament unable to conciliate -- or even openly discuss -- legitimate regional differences, resentments festering in all regions, unstable national governments, and provincial parties gaining power locally by running down Ottawa.

There is a missing connection between our provincial and national governments. It is a provincially elected national Senate.

Link Byfield is an Edmonton journalist and an Alberta senator-elect.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2009 A11

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