© THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
The Senate chamber on Parliament Hill is seen Tuesday May 28, 2013 in Ottawa.
Time to represent our region
Editor’s note: Newspapers across Atlantic Canada have chosen to speak together in one voice on an issue of importance to the Atlantic region — Senate reform. The Guardian fully supports this editorial which appears today in The Chronicle Herald of Halifax.
Justin Trudeau’s removal of 32 Liberal senators from his parliamentary caucus — enabling them to be free thinkers and free voters if they’re up to the challenge — creates possibilities for a political “Senate Spring” that even Mr. Trudeau may not have imagined.
What the Liberal leader has envisaged — a less partisan Senate where members exercise independent judgment in examining and voting on legislation—would be a welcome improvement. It would make the Senate a more competent and useful lawmaking body than the toe-the-line place we have today.
But in slipping party bonds, senators have an even greater opportunity to make the Senate matter. They can finally choose to do what the Senate was primarily created to do — to represent Canada’s regions in Ottawa.
In that spirit, we are today calling upon Atlantic Canada’s senators — both the emancipated Liberals and the still-chained-to-the-party Conservatives — to make regional representation their first duty from now on.
To make this duty a reality, we call upon the senators of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador to
organize themselves as an Atlantic caucus.
We challenge them to begin working as a group to consult with the people, communities, legislatures and other stakeholders in the region to determine their needs and priorities. We urge them to start acting as a cohesive body to further those interests in Parliament and in the federal government.
To actually engage the citizens they are supposed to represent, and to make a concerted collective effort to fight for their interests, would do more to enhance the legitimacy and credibility of appointed senators than anything else we can think of.
With 30 of the Senate’s 105 seats, an Atlantic caucus would also have some serious voting weight.
Besides, this is a better way for senators to do their real job.
As Donald Savoie, Atlantic Canada’s leading governance scholar, wrote in a Policy Options article last fall, “the Senate’s primary role as a promoter and defender of regional interests ... is what the Fathers of Confederation had in mind for the upper chamber when they midwifed it.”
For the Maritimes, the Senate was to be a “counterforce” to the interests of the more populous provinces, says Mr. Savoie.
That’s why Maritimes delegates made the Senate a condition of supporting Confederation. That’s why the Maritime region got the same Senate representation as Ontario, Quebec and the West. That’s why our senators should start living up to the job of thinking, acting and, yes, even voting together for the overall benefit of this region.
The Senate’s real purpose still seems to be a radical idea to some senators. Even the liberated Liberals have unimaginatively restyled themselves the “Senate Liberal caucus” in homage to their “enduring values.” This is just as likely a reflection of comfortable old habits of association.
It is encouraging that not everyone in the upper chamber is comfortable with the clubby past. In an article published by the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in the current issue of Inside Policy magazine, Nova Scotia Conservative Senator Stephen Greene also argues that senators “must reorient their representation” to be true to their regional mandate.
“Whether Senators attend their national caucus or not,” he writes, “all Senators from a region should caucus together, irrespective of party. This would enable Senators from a region to work on issues important to a region, like the Constitution mandates, re-establishing the regional representation aspect of the Senate.”
There is no better place than Atlantic Canada to begin this relevance reset for the Senate. Two years ago this newspaper and five other Atlantic Canada dailies jointly called on Atlantic provincial governments to be bold and innovative in remaking the Senate as a true regional champion. In response to federal legislation that aimed to reform the Senate without amending the constitution, we pressed the Atlantic provinces to work together as a region to devise a non-partisan process that would engage the public in nominating candidates for Senate appointments.
That legislation is now being reviewed by the courts. But there are other ways for Atlantic Canada to be bold in aligning our Senate representation with our interests. We can and should press all our senators to join, and work as, an Atlantic caucus.