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Manitoba could help fix Senate

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The Senate is in the media spotlight and, as Canadians have come to expect, the glare of the cameras is far from flattering. In this case, senators are under scrutiny for misuse of Senate housing and travel funds. But this is only the most recent round of negative publicity for senators. What can be done? And what role can Manitobans play in helping to solve the problem?

Defenders of the status quo argue that the focus here should be on the misdeeds of a relatively small number of rogue senators. Allusions to "a few bad apples" abound.

We disagree with this assessment. The unsavory behaviours exhibited by senators in this and other episodes is a direct consequence of an unelected and fundamentally undemocratic institution. One cannot be surprised when officials who are unaccountable to the public behave in ways that would earn them a swift kick out of public office were they forced to submit themselves to voters for re-election.

Indeed, attempting to cope with senators' misdeeds through the development of more stringent spending rules without reforming the institution itself strikes us as akin to coping with a sewer main break by bolting the manholes to the pavement. Systemic problems necessarily require systemic solutions.

Recognizing that unaccountable behaviours are in part the product of an unaccountable institution, the solution to these problems is to make the Senate accountable to the electorate by electing senators. This notion is not a new one. Alberta has been doing it since the 1980s. New Brunswick is scheduled to have its first Senate election in 2016. While provinces do not have the power to appoint elected senators, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has pledged to appoint candidates who are elected at the provincial level. He has consistently done so when provided with the opportunity.

This brings us back to the question of what Manitobans can do to solve the problem of the Senate. As it turns out, we can do a great deal. Manitobans will soon confront a historical opportunity to elect senators and in so doing help to inject the Red Chamber with democratic legitimacy. This is because two senators from Manitoba face mandatory retirement in 2017.

The opportunity is notable for two reasons. First, because of the job security that senators enjoy: They are appointed for life and must only retire at age 75. Patrick Brazeau, the youngest Senator, is 38; meaning he looks forward to 37 years of employment before retirement. This lengthy job security ensures that the opportunity to elect senators arises relatively rarely.

Second, the Manitoba government will have two opportunities to hold Senate elections prior to these 2017 retirements. The elections may be held in conjunction with either an upcoming provincial election in 2015 or 2016, or a municipal election in 2016. Senate elections may take place on their own, but holding them concurrently with provincial or municipal elections keeps their costs down and ensures that voters don't have to visit the polls too often. Either way, two elected senators would be ready to assume office on behalf of Manitobans in 2017.

There is substantial evidence that the Manitoba government is ready to capitalize on the opportunity and hold elections to fill these vacancies. In 2006, all parties in the Manitoba legislature supported the Elections Reform Act, which called for democratic elections to fill Senate seats in Manitoba. In 2009, an all-party special committee investigating Senate reform heard from Manitobans in public hearings and similarly recommended the implementation of senatorial elections.

In roughly two years, the Supreme Court will rule on several reference questions on the federal government's Senate reform package. One question relates to the constitutionality of a national framework for provincial governments to consult residents on Senate appointees. The court's ruling, however, will not affect the prime minister's ability to recommend appointments to the Senate, and he has committed to appointing provincial nominees. Waiting for the reference decision is therefore not a justification to put off Senate elections in Manitoba, especially given the exceptional opportunity afforded Manitobans in 2017.

Manitobans have a unique chance to address the problems plaguing the Senate in 2017 by becoming the third province to elect its senators. The provincial government should move forward on this file by committing to hold Senate elections in conjunction with either the upcoming provincial or municipal elections. Additionally, political parties should play their part by pledging to nominate outstanding Senate nominees and supporting them vigorously during the campaign. In so doing, Manitoba would play an historical role in democratizing Canada's Upper House and addressing many of the problems the Senate currently faces.


Royce Koop is an assistant professor in the department of political studies, University of Manitoba. Co-writer Davis Hirsch received an undergraduate research fellowship to work with Koop this summer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 3, 2013 A9

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