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James Cowan

The Hon. James  Cowan, Q.C., B.A., LL.B., LL.M., LL.D. Senator James Cowan has greatly influenced the educational and legal communities of Nova Scotia. He was appointed to the Senate on March 24, 2005 by the Rt. Hon. Paul Martin.

Statements & Hansard

Motion to Urge Government to Engage in Consultations on Senate Reform

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Statement made on 28 April 2009 by Senator Grant Mitchell

Hon. Grant Mitchell:

Honourable senators, I rise to speak to this issue, of course, I am from Alberta and it is perhaps the epicentre of Senate reform. I certainly am not in any way, shape or form opposed to Senate reform, although I want to note that Senator Tkachuk said I was in a letter to the editor in the Edmonton Journal. However, he was wrong and I am sure that was the first time ever. I am actually not opposed to it at all.

However, I would like to state some caution about unintended consequences if we proceed to elect senators without first putting some other things in place.

That, of course, is the gist of the first option that Senator Segal's motion would offer Canadians. That option seems to be simple but it is not. It raises very complex possibilities for complex, unintended consequences. First, as we all know, the Senate has power to veto everything the House of Commons passes including budgets and legislation. As we also know, because we are not elected, we are sensitive about doing that and we do not, in fact, exercise that power as rigorously, as forcefully and in as pointed a way as we might otherwise.

Let us say we became an elected body. We would begin to exercise that power because we would be driven by our electoral responsibilities — by constituents — to do so. If we had not changed those powers, we could literally hamstring and grind the mechanisms of government to a halt.

If we had a majority in the Senate that reflected a majority in the House of Commons, government-to-government, it would be less of a problem than if that was not the case. There are many times in our history where that has not been the case.

The argument that automatically electing senators will somehow make the process more democratic simply does not necessarily follow. It could make it far less democratic because that institution would not be able to respond to the democratic input and pressures from the constituents in this country, the Canadian people.

The second thing, which Senator Brown has often argued, is this: We need an elected Senator because that will be the way we can redress regional imbalances and tensions that have apparently existed over many years. We need to be careful because that is not a panacea by any means.

It is probably not widely known but Alberta actually has a greater percentage of the seats in the House of Commons than we have in the Senate. We have over 9 per cent of the seats in the House of Commons and we have less than 6 per cent of the seats in the Senate. If we were to begin to exercise forcefully our powers because we were elected, what would that do to redress regional imbalance?

Exercising that power would not improve the situation already existing, given the representation we have in the House of Commons. It would exacerbate it. Look at the distribution of seats across this country: the West has 24 seats, Ontario has 24 seats, Quebec has 24 seats, and the Atlantic Provinces have 30. Alberta has 6 seats and British Columbia has 6 seats. Nova Scotia has 10 seats and New Brunswick has 10 seats.

I am not saying we should take away the advantages they have; they have great concerns with regional imbalance. If we begin to elect senators without having worked out a way to break impasses between the two houses and to redistribute seats, then we are not solving the problem, we are exacerbating it.

I believe — not to be too partisan — that the Prime Minister probably knows that an elected Senate cannot happen, but the issue is great divisive politics.

My next point is that there are significant consequences for the structure of power in our parliamentary system and our federal system if we begin to elect senators. For example, suddenly the Prime Minister's power could be virtually gutted. As I indicated earlier, what the Prime Minister wants to do in the other house could be stopped or ground to a halt in this house. We would have a great deal of change in the power held by the Prime Minister.

In addition, there would be a fundamental change in the power of members of Parliament. In Alberta, we have 28 members of Parliament. Each member represents one twenty-eighth of the province, and their constituency is the same, give or take, as a result of distribution. Six senators in Alberta represent the whole province or, if we to distil it down, each senator represents one-sixth of the province. Honourable senators, who do you think would be the more powerful spokespersons? Clearly, it would be the senators.

Look at the situation in the United States. Which is the most powerful political body in the United States? Name four or five members of Congress. I ask people that and they cannot do it. However, most can name four, five, six or ten senators. Do honourable senators know why? The Senate is where the power resides.

That situation raises problems for the provinces. The provincial premiers, currently, are the spokespersons for regional interests. One of our responsibilities is to represent regional and minority interests.

If we exercised our power to represent regional interests more directly and forcefully, where do honourable senators think we would obtain that power? Power is a zero-sum game. We would take it from the premiers.

What would taking the power from the premiers do? No matter how hard senators try not to become "Ottawa-ized," that would inevitably shift the representation of regional interests from the regions or provinces to Ottawa and to this chamber. I am not saying that consideration is overwhelming, but it should be considered before we go ahead with piecemeal elections and not having figured out the rest of these problems.

While I am on this issue, I want to mention the eight-year terms. I do not know whether the new members, in particular, realize this point, but it is much more likely that we will have eight-year terms than that we will have elections. Elections require 7 provinces with 50 per cent of the population to approve such a change and it may be — although I do not necessarily agree — that eight-year terms require approval only of the Parliament of Canada under the Constitution.

An Hon. Senator: Hear, hear.

Senator Mitchell: Thank you. Coming from a lawyer of that of quality, I am rather chuffed about coming to that conclusion.

That situation means we could end up with eight-year terms and no elections. The prime minister would have to appoint every one of the people in this house. All the prime minister would have to do is win two elections to have the opportunity to appoint the entire Senate.

I ask honourable senators to tell me how a Senate that is beholden to a single prime minister offsets the executive power of the House of Commons. Some honourable senators may think it is okay as long as there is a Conservative Prime Minister — although I do not think there will be one for long. However, I am willing to bet those honourable senators will not be happy when Prime Minister Ignatieff is sitting over there and is making those appointments.

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