Alberta Politics

2016 will mark the end of Senate Elections in Alberta

The Senatorial Selection Act, the law that governs Alberta’s unique Senate nominee elections, expires on Dec. 31, 2016. The longstanding policy of the Alberta New Democratic Party which supports the abolition of the Canadian Senate likely means the Act will be allowed to expire, into the dust of legislative history.

Don Getty Premier of Alberta
Don Getty

Members of the Canadian Senate are appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the Prime Minister. Alberta is the only province with a general election process to select Senate nominees, which have been held in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012.

The Senatorial Selection Act was introduced in 1989, in part to allow the Progressive Conservative government of Don Getty to co-opt the issue of Senate reform, which had become a powerful rallying crying of the populist Reform Party. Reform candidate Stanley Waters won the 1989 election and was appointed to the Senate in 1990 on the advice of then-prime minister Brian Mulroney.

Stan Waters Alberta Senate
Stanley Waters

Only a handful of Alberta’s elected Senators have actually been appointed to the upper chamber, as the election process exists outside of the Constitution and can be ignored by the federal government. Current Conservative Senators Doug Black and Scott Tannas, elected in 2012, and Betty Unger, elected in 2004, were appointed to the Senate on the advice of former prime minister Stephen Harper.

With the exception of the 1989 election, when Liberal Bill Code placed second, only the conservative Reform Party, Progressive Conservative, Alberta Alliance, Social Credit and Wildrose Party, and the environmentalist Evergreen Party have participated in the elections. Progressive candidates have also run as Independents without the backing of their political parties. In 1998, future NDP candidate Guy Desrosiers stood as an Independent Senate candidate (and placed third with 16.7% of the vote).

Rachel Notley Alberta NDP leader
Rachel Notley

A high-level of rejected, declined and spoiled ballots in the Senate elections suggests that many Albertans are unengaged in this process. More than 178,000 ballots were rejected, spoiled and declined in the 2004 Senate election, amounting to 19 percent of Albertans who showed up to the polls. In 2012, more than 189,000 Senate election ballots were rejected, spoiled and declined, compared to only 7,822 in the provincial general election held the same day.

While the NDP have long supported the abolishment of the Senate, the idea has grown popular in conservative circles in recent years. Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has echoed the NDP’s calls for Senate abolishment, and in an odd pre-election maneuver, Mr. Harper tacitly endorsed the abolishment of the Senate if it could not be reformed (this took place after he appointed more than 50 Conservatives to the Senate, including Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin).

Stephen Harper Calgary Stampede
Stephen Harper

new Senate appointment advisory board created by the federal Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau after the October 2015 election will review nominated Canadians who meet the criteria of demonstrating a record of leadership in community service or professional expertise, a proven record of ethics and integrity and knowledge of the Senate’s role. It is unclear whether the new advisory board will place future provincially-endorsed elected nominees in higher consideration.

The current Alberta NDP government has not officially announced it will not renew the Senatorial Selection Act, but a speech from now-Premier Rachel Notley in 2009, while she was debating amendments to extend the Act until Dec. 31, 2016, strongly suggests that it will not be renewed again this year:

“…this is a piece of legislation that we can’t support because, quite frankly, it just provides a foundation to continue with what is currently a very ineffective system on the federal level.

As has been previously stated, our view is simply that the Senate should be abolished. It is not something that reflects the democratic makeup of our country. The historical rationale behind appointing a Senate has long since dissipated in terms of sort of the historical political concerns that underlay the initial construction of the Senate. The current elements of the Senate that we would effectively be promoting and encouraging the continuation of are, in my view, quite unacceptable.

Whether we elect our Senators or whether we have elections where the government chooses to appoint our Senators, we’re still dealing with the current situation, which is that the Senate itself does not reflect the national population distribution in that, you know, Alberta has six Senate seats, and New Brunswick, with about one fifth of Alberta’s population, has 10 seats. Eligibility for appointment in the Senate is still based in part on property ownership, and once appointed, Senators just get to hang around there until 75.

Whether we have this legislation or do not have this legislation, that’s exactly what’s going to happen. Having had this legislation, we’ve actually, if anything, encouraged the continuation of the Senate. We’ve encouraged buy-in to what is a fundamentally antidemocratic institution.

You know, this was something that came up originally as a means to make a political point when there were substantive discussions around Senate reform a long, long time ago. There have been no meaningful discussions around Senate reform for, I would suggest, about a decade at least.

This piece of legislation will simply give credence to what continues to be a dysfunctional system and one that is costly and one that has long since outlived its purpose. The bill has outlived the purpose, the process in Alberta has outlived the purpose, and frankly the Senate has outlived its purpose. For that reason, we cannot support the bill.”

5 replies on “2016 will mark the end of Senate Elections in Alberta”

Yes, the Senate should be abolished. The problem is, that is never going to happen. The Supreme Court has ruled that Senate abolition, being a fundamental change to the architecture of Parliament, falls into that category of Constitutional amendments requiring not just the approval of 7 provinces comprising 50% of the population of Canada, but unanimous consent of all 10 provinces. That is beyond pie in the sky; it’s an entire bakery.

Even tinkering with the Senate as it currently exists requires a high bar for success. We’re stuck with it for the foreseeable future.

That said, I never supported the Senatorial election process, as it was a creature of those ultra-right wing conservatives that don’t like the great unwashed masses (/sarcasm) having too much authority in Ottawa.

The Senate – as a chamber of sober second thought – is a good idea and should continue to exist. What is desperately needed is a change in which senators are appointed, the type of people who are appointed, and the way Senators conduct themselves. Most importantly, Senators should be accountable to Canadians, not to their party.

Constitutionally, reforming it may require a bit lower threshold of support than abolition. I think the country will eventually realize that reforming the Senate, which is considered to be close to impossible, is better than continuing to complain about it because abolishing it really is impossible.

I suspect clever minds can eventually come up with a structure that would satisfy enough provinces to reform it so perhaps the Senate can play some useful role, perhaps like what it was intended to do. Of course, Senate reform is really no ones priority right now. The Senate is somewhat innocuous – it seldom exercises real power and when it does it is careful not to offend public opinion too much. Talking about the Senate is like talking about the weather – we like to complain, but we feel we can’t do anything about it.

It will take another Senate scandal, a misstep such as an abuse of power or perhaps a combination of circumstances, like those which prompted patriation of the Constitution, to cause reform to happen.

Will it happen in our lifetimes? Who knows. We talked about patriation of the Constitution for decades, generally not very seriously, for years before it happened – but it did happen in the end. Other places, like Australia have gone through a debate like this and resolved it.

I am glad to see the end of that somewhat contrived process. That said, back when Ralph Klein was premier, I used to think it would be a hoot to run in the election with a two plank platform:

1. I think the exercise is a complete waste of time and money, please vote for me if you agree and
2. If elected I promise to refuse the senate seat if it is offered.

On a related front, the Klein era was also when we briefly elected SOME members of the regional Health Boards, until the government shut it down because some of the elected members were proving to be embarrassing for them. It would have been really satisfying to collect enough signatures on a petition to force city council to conduct a ‘Health Board Member in Waiting’ election, and see if the provincial government would appoint the winner while they were pressuring Ottawa to appoint the elected Senate candidate.

Ralph Klein wasted around $3 million on impractical and quite frankly useless Senators in waiting. Yet, other areas, like schools, weren’t given money for much needed programs, like meals for impoverished kids, because Ralph Klein said there was no money for them. The Senate has proven to be mired in corruption and has outlived its usefulness. It should be abolished. It is very unlikely that it can be properly reformed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *