Xtra
3 min

The problem with Senate ‘consultative elections’

In the event that you haven’t heard,
Alberta is planning on running another sham Senate “consultation election” to
happen in conjunction with the provincial election. The government is encouraged by
Harper’s current Senate “reform” bill that would legislatively encourage
provinces to hold such “consultative elections” – using their own processes, with
no uniform standards from province to province for a presumptive federal seat,
and on their own dimes, of course. That Alberta has held such sham processes
before, and that Harper has appointed two of these “elected” nominees (with Betty Unger this past Friday), encourages them that they’re somehow engaged in a
meaningful process – even though it is nothing of the sort.

There are a number of fundamental problems
with the way this process has traditionally been handled, not the least of
which is that it’s unconstitutional at its very core. We appoint senators in
this country for a very good reason. And because the process is
unconstitutional, the Liberals have boycotted the whole sham process. (The New Democrats
boycott it because they want the Senate abolished.) And in this upcoming
“election,” the fledgling Alberta party will similarly be boycotting as well.

Which leads me to the second major problem.
Because the provinces are supposed to run these “elections,” they run
candidates based on provincial parties. Except that in the Senate, partisan
lines are based on federal parties, and provincial parties of the same name are
not necessarily analogous. The BC Liberals are a case in point – a former BC
Liberal MLA sits as a Conservative senator (and said senator spoke out against
Harper’s bill in part for this very reason). In Alberta’s case, provincial
parties like the Wildrose Party are planning on running candidates, as their
forerunner, the Alberta Alliance, did in the previous process. We don’t have a
federal Wildrose Party. Does this mean that the presumptive nominee from that
party would automatically sit as an independent? Would he or she join the federal
Conservatives, and if so, does it not then become disingenuous for a candidate to
run for one party when he or she intends to sit as another? You can see why this
is a problem.

The ballots themselves are a problem. In
previous races, the province designated there to be a certain number of nominee
spaces open, based on the number of expected vacant Senate seats within the
seven-year period, or whatever they deem it to be. In the previous case there
were determined to be four likely vacancies, and so they told people to mark
off four spaces on their ballots, and the top four winners would become the four
presumptive nominees, and in the order of votes received. Except the voter
education wasn’t exactly stellar on this point, and candidates told
voters to simply vote for just one candidate and not their top four.

(Add to that, Bert Brown, who Harper
appointed based on said dubious process, counted the total number of votes cast
as the legitimacy for the process, never mind that many voters cast up to four
votes. When I challenged him on this in The
Hill Times
a few years ago, he responded by talking about how Canadians
fought to preserve democracy in World War II. Seriously.)

And then there are the campaigns
themselves. As we discussed previously, there are no uniform standards, and no
standards as to what spending limits are. Not that it mattered for many
candidates in the previous process, because in looking through the paperwork
they filed with Alberta Elections (because a provincial election body running a
process for a federal seat makes so much sense) showed that a good number of
them spent zero dollars in advertising, not that any of the candidates really
engaged in much of an actual electoral campaign based on the dollars spent. In
the end, it was a bunch of meaningless names on pieces of paper, belonging to
two ideologically similar provincial parties who had no federal counterparts.

And yet this sham process is
“democratically legitimate.”

If anything, Alberta’s experience has proven
why Harper’s piecemeal “reform” process does not work and actually does more
harm to the institution because it does not take into account any of the
realities of what those reforms, done piecemeal, actually does to the
institution as a whole and in bicameral and federal perspective. And yet Harper
wants to replicate the process across the country, while Alberta is set to run
the whole sorry exercise all over again.

If you’re serious about Senate reform, then
a coherent vision of what the body should look like in a reformed
state is needed, and what its function and role will be. Both Harper’s and Alberta’s
attempts do not contemplate those more fundamental questions and make a
mockery of the very reform they are attempting to bring about. And yes, process
matters. Democracy cannot survive without clear and coherent process, and this
is not clear, coherent nor actually democratic.

Note: This is a
vacation post. Normal blogging resumes on Tuesday, Jan 17.

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