Alberta Politics
The Senate of Canada’s temporary abode while the Parliament Building in Ottawa is refurbished (Photo: Government of Canada).

The Alberta Senate Election Act explained – a farcical, faux exercise, for sure, but a clever one

Posted on June 27, 2019, 2:32 am
7 mins

Never mind the details for a moment, this is all you really need to know about Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s constitutionally meaningless Senate elections law, introduced as Bill 13 in the provincial Legislature yesterday.

Mr. Kenney has presented Alberta’s progressives, of whom there are many, and the politicians they support with a wonderful opportunity to shoot themselves in both feet in a little over two years.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

On Oct. 17, 2021 – the day the non-binding vote required by the Alberta Senate Election Act is to take place – we shall duly do so, I regretfully predict.

Well, no one ever said Mr. Kenney isn’t a clever politician.

Senate “reform” has long been a hobbyhorse of the perpetually dissatisfied far-right in this part of the country. These people imagine that a U.S.-style upper house in place of the unelected 19th Century relic we now have would be a panacea to their feelings of alienation in a larger federation where the majority of citizens don’t share their antediluvian views. Thus they have demanded for years a “Triple-E Senate,” meaning elected, equal and effective.

Accordingly, faux Senate “elections” were held by Conservative governments in 1989, 2004 and 2012 in Alberta. The NDP government sensibly allowed the legislation to lapse, but Mr. Kenney has now revived this pipedream, with a slightly altered agenda.

Here’s how this will enable progressives to shoot themselves, metaphorically speaking, in both feet.

Alberta Opposition Leader Rachel Notley (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The last time there was one of these constitutionally farcical votes – I hesitate to call them elections, because they’re not really – progressive voters were given no opportunity by their parties to express their protest for this then-$3-million waste of money other than by spoiling their ballots or formally declining them.

As I wrote at the time, “it’s a pity the more progressive parties didn’t take advantage of this spectacular opportunity for free advertising despite the preference of most of their supporters for a Triple-A Senate – that is, Abolish, Abolish and Abolish.”

The Senate vote, after all, was going ahead anyway, whether or not progressives thought it was a good idea, because Conservatives rightly saw gain for themselves in this fraudulent exercise.

But without an organized campaign for a strategically chosen candidate by any of the progressive parties then in the Legislature, progressive voters had no obvious way to express their dissatisfaction with the wasteful symbolic exercise and prove the fraudulence of the exercise when their candidate was duly not appointed to the Senate after the Conservatives under Stephen Harper came to power in 2006.

Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Indeed, Mr. Harper even ignored some of the Conservative victors, wisely seeing they were too nutty for voters in other parts of Canada.

Of course, the progressive political parties were far too principled to consider such a practical option, and there is no reason to believe they won’t do exactly the same thing again.

Not a good use of our money,” NDP Opposition Leader and former premier Rachel Notley said yesterday. “It undermines our democracy. It’s retreaded old 1980s politics.” All true, but no reason not to exploit the opportunity for greater good.

For his part, Mr. Kenney claimed “this is not some kind of political symbol, this isn’t just a gesture, this is an effort to revive democracy in the heart of our Parliament.”

This, of course, is errant baloney. As for as Parliament goes, that’s all it is and all it ever will be

However, there’s more to it than that. Not by coincidence, Oct. 17, 2021 is municipal election day, when turnouts are traditionally low to match the stakes and Alberta voters often elect plenty of progressive councillors and mayors to the intense frustration of well-financed local property developers’ sprawl cabals.

What better way to motivate the perpetually angry Conservative base to turn out for municipal elections while they do something they think is really important – electing Senate nominees that no government in its right mind, even a Conservative one, would foist on the Red Chamber?

Accordingly, this bill ought to be called the Mayor Nenshi De-selection Act – which, I imagine, is really what Mr. Kenney and his cronies in Calgary’s development industry have in mind.

The squishy candidate-financing rules contained in the legislation should also provide opportunities for Mr. Kenney’s United Conservative Party to do what it does best – misallocating election contributions.

And that, dear readers, is all you need to know.

An update on the author’s eyes

For those of you wondering, the author’s right eye is dramatically improved after surgery to remove a cataract last week, although it still requires a plethora of eye drops. Another date with the surgeon for the other eye is scheduled soon. Occasional additional interruptions and a relaxed publication pace will need to continue for a spell. DJC

CORRECTION: The proper name of  Bill 13 is the Alberta Senate Election Act. The second of the previous Senate nominee elections took place in 2004. Incorrect information appeared in an earlier version of this story.

11 Comments to: The Alberta Senate Election Act explained – a farcical, faux exercise, for sure, but a clever one

  1. Jerrymacgp

    June 27th, 2019

    Firstly, the Supreme Court of Canada has ruled, in a reference case put to it by the HarperCon government, that Senate reform by stealth is legally & constitutionally a non-starter in the country. Making the Senate elected, for instance, would require a constitutional amendment be passed by Parliament and also by the legislatures of at least 7 of the 10 provinces cumulatively comprising at least 50% of the population of Canada; abolishing the Senate outright—which has been the policy of the NDP for ages—would require unanimity amongst those 11 legislative bodies, essentially unachievable in this country.

    The Prime Minister, who “advises” the Governor-General on whom to “summon” to the Senate, does have some leeway to tinker around the edges, as the current incumbent has done by throwing open the selection process to encompass candidates beyond the usual Party bagmen and aging warhorses. But this tinkering is more a self-imposed constraint on his own otherwise unfettered discretion, not binding on his successor, and the putative next PM, Andrew the Dimple-Cheeked, has already announced that if he gets to sit behemoth he that desk in the former Langevin Block, he will revert to the old Party loyalist system for selecting Senators. Whether he would appoint any of the “winners” of those Alberta “elections” is an open question; his predecessor as CPC leader was inconsistent on that point when he held that power.

    The other issue with the Senate, is that the legitimacy afforded by having been elected could lead to constitutional gridlock, without the necessary Parliamentary processes in place to break the logjam, such as those that operate in Australia—which has an elected Senate, but whose constitution contains processes to resolve any impasse between the House of Representatives, which is the chamber of confidence & supply, just as the HoC is here, and the Senate. Our constitution contains no such provisions, and the only reason the chamber of confidence & supply is paramount is that, by convention, unelected Senators eventually choose to exercise deference to the elected MPs (although they famously did not do so in the 1980s over the Mulroney government’s introduction of the GST, forcing him to add additional Senate seats & appoint a bunch of Tories to fill them and create a Government majority in the upper house).

    We see this sort of gridlock all the time south of the Medicine Line—to borrow our host’s colourful phrase—but many political scientists have said that this aspect of the functioning of the US Congress is a feature, not a bug, in that the framers envisioned a system in which making laws was hard to do. Canadians, by & large, don’t see government in quite that same negative light, so we tend to see a role for a Parliament that can function smoothly.

    Finally, what would happen if, just to posit a hypothetical, Jagmeet Singh were to become Prime Minister? With the NDP so opposed to the existence of the Senate, how would he fill vacancies in the Red Chamber?

    Reply
    • Jerrymacgp

      June 27th, 2019

      P.S. Welcome back, and glad all went well … 🙂

      Reply
  2. Bob Raynard

    June 27th, 2019

    I am glad you are back, David, and also glad your difficulty is comparatively routine, as opposed to something life-threatening.

    My wife and I have been frustrated by this farce from the get go. Like David says, there is no way to express your discontent other than to decline the ballot or spoil it. The frustration is even worse when the election happens during an austerity period, when the government says there is no money for basic services.

    I also wonder if the $3 million dollars includes the amount that donations to candidates cost the provincial treasury. I believe the rates for senatorial contributions are the same as for MLAs: donate $200 and the provincial government refunds you $150.

    Reply
  3. Political Ranger

    June 27th, 2019

    Ahh, the drops … forever and ever.
    Lest you think this is some kind of Chinese torture, consider that one of our European ancestors, Hippolytus de Marsiliis from Bologna no less, described it more than 500 years ago.

    Eye drops, and Wikipedia are both excellent additions to every (old) man’s arsenal. Just try going without either for a week or two and a very modern form of torture will ensue.

    Reply
  4. Scotty on Denman

    June 27th, 2019

    The best thing that can be said about the Senate is that whenever elected politicians try to distract voters’ attention away from their performance problems— or try to conceal their real intentions— by proposing this or that reform of it, the opportunity is afforded citizens to research the proposal and coincidentally realize how little they ever knew about our ‘chamber of sober second thought.’ The education is so byzantine that the student quickly resorts to the heuristic approach: forget about ancient senatorial history, the intended restraints on both monarchical and popular power, its long attendance in the shaping of The Common Law, its difficult acquiescence to the development of a popularly-elected legislative house, its inappropriate application to British North America’s constitutional and territorial developments, the dozens of failed attempts to reform it and nine successful attempts to fiddle with it around the very edges—and move directly to simply demanding what he or she wants with competitive volume until the whole fuss settles back down, as it always does, throat lozenges handed out, and the Senate again quietly awaits the next spurious, ulteriorly motivated call to do it all again.

    Of equally effective stultification was Stephen Harper’s suggestion to “amalgamate” the three Maritime provinces into one, a constitutional impossibility, one which might have been intended as not only distraction from his lacklustre governance but also one where members of his partisanship could signal the virtue of their anti-intellectualism to each other, grouse about the alleged “unfairness” of federal parliamentary seat allocations (Senatorial, Commons and Judicial) for the tiny PEI and its not-much-bigger immediate neighbours in the zone of ‘cultural defeatism,’as he characterized the region, astutely on the hunt for the most easily understood justice equations.

    Eventually the professors of constitutional law have to throw up their hands and admit their best efforts have been defeated: these students are just never gonna get it.

    In this circumstance, the do-nothing-about-the-Senate faction can rest easily on the fact that nothing can be done easily about the Constitution’s institutions, anyway.

    Abolition would require near-unanimous agreement among and amongst the provinces and feds, or regions of provinces in similar geopolitical situations, Quebec wanting its own country, Ontario nothing more than supremacy, the West “wants in” by letting its resources out of landlocked continentality, the Maritimes just want back in, the north just wants some attention and BC, naturally, wants all it can get. It’s a recipe: abolish the idea of abolition: it’s just too difficult. Ask Blarney Bullroney about the last, and probably final, Tory act.

    Nonetheless, these periodic exercises are interesting, if not much educative, in revealing what citizens understand and are willing to accept as truth; even more fascinating, how telling the politician’s conjuring and duping is, and what it reveals of the practicality and justification of their constitutional baloney. It rather suggests a poverty of ideas to address an existential predicament.

    The now-blinkered sulkies of Albertan politics have convincingly chosen the track they’re on and will not veer from as long’s the carrot of their perennial case for fairness dangles just beyond their noses. Ironically, it only works if the carrot is never actually tasted lest it be disappointing.

    Yet, as far’s The Senate’s concerned, its reoccurring use for such parlour tricks is unhelpful and, despite its tantalizing potential if it could possibly be reformed, its fundamental manufactory of ideals, inducement, ulterior manoeuvre, camouflage, patronage and abuse is effective sabotage of the machinery we need to build to deal with real problems emerging. That is, sabotage by distraction and delay.

    The Senate should be abolished, but likely we can’t do it. It remains in the gaming.

    Reply
  5. ronmac

    June 27th, 2019

    Excellent news re your eyes. Now you can peruse Scheer’s climate plan.

    Reply
    • Farmer Brian

      June 29th, 2019

      First off David glad to hear the surgery on you eye went well.
      Ronmac I was watching the national a week ago last thursday(I enjoy at issue on Thursdays), Rosemary Barton was interviewing Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. Rosemary was quizzing the minister on why the Federal Liberal’s had stated that they would not raise the carbon tax above $50 a tonne after 2022 even though the parliamentary budget office in a recent study said it would have to go up another $52 by 2030. In her response she talked about electric cars and the new plastic bag ban(wasn’t aware that was a carbon reduction policy) and then this, she said that the carbon tax would only get us 20% of the way to our targets anyway. So Liberal’s are lighting their hair on fire attacking the Conservative climate plan because there is no carbon tax but their own minister just admitted that only 20% of the reductions will come from the carbon tax, the other 80% will come from regulation and investment in green technology, just like the Conservative plan. Enjoy your day.

      Reply
      • David Climenhaga

        June 29th, 2019

        Thanks, Farmer Brian. DJC

        Reply
  6. Keith McClary

    June 28th, 2019

    Where was Kenney when “Mr. Harper even ignored some of the Conservative victors” and what does Schneer promise to do with any victors (regardless of party)?

    Reply
  7. Bob Raynard

    June 28th, 2019

    What was interesting about the original senate elections, was that Ralph Klein brought them in the same time he was overhauling the health system, and installing the regional health boards, whose members were appointed. I remember thinking at the time it would be great fun if our city council were to hold ‘Health Board Member in Waiting’ elections, just to see what Mr. Klein would do with the winner.

    Later Mr. Klein did agree to have some board members elected, a minority I expect, just so his appointed members could still be relied on. The experiment was short lived. The impression I was left with was the elected members were causing problems on the board, either because they weren’t following the party line like the appointed hacks, or they pushed for more dominance because of their elected status.

    This is going back more than 20 years so my memory is definitely hazy; Jerry MacGP health politics is your area of expertise. Your memory/comment would be most welcome.

    Reply
  8. Dave

    June 29th, 2019

    One could argue the Senate is working better than ever right now, with the tweaks Trudeau made. The semi independent Liberal Senators are not so closely tied to the party that they can stand up from time to time, and he seems to have chosen a diverse group of people of enough caliber that they can adequately fulfill their supposed role of being the chamber of sober second thought. However, ironically this new system is only at the pleasure of the Prime Minister, so it could all easily go poof if the Liberals lose the next election or if Trudeau grows tired of occasionally being challenged by the Senate.

    In some ways we are a strange country constitutionally. We have a Prime Minister who theoretically has no power under the constitution, but who in reality exercises a great deal of power and a Senate which has a great deal of power theoretically, which actually exercises very little power. Maybe that all needs to be fixed. I am not sure if if would solve all our problems, but perhaps it would help solve some. For instance, wasn’t the SNC Lavalin brouhaha (I’m not sure if it quite qualifies as a scandal), partly about people in the too powerful PMO trying to run roughshod over cabinet ministers? Also, some of the regional tensions in our country exist or are exacerbated due to imbalances in representation in the House of Commons. A better designed Senate, for instance with equal and proportional representation might help mitigate them.

    However, sadly its unlikely to happen as we as a nation have convinced ourselves rightly or not that it is impossible to change our constitution and to really fix the Senate would require exactly that. Therefore, I suppose we should enjoy the semi independent Senate while it lasts. Ironically, Trudeau has done more to improve the Senate than the elected-appointed Senators from Alberta ever have.

    Reply

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