Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Crossbench Senate - A Consequence Of The Canadian Election

It is now clear that Canada's Liberals have gone from a poor third place to win yesterday's election - which is an amazing turn around, given that at the previous election, in May 2011, the New Democrats had replaced them as the Official Opposition.

What might be overlooked is the Senate, which has an upper size of 105 members. There are currently a rather large number of vacancies - 22 in all, just over one-fifth of the Senate. And this now gives the incoming Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, a golden opportunity.

A couple of years back, I noted that former Prime Minister Tony Blair was a bit of a genius by appointing loads of Blairite Labour peers, who would carry the flame for decades after he had left office. The situation in Canada is similar, as a Prime Minister can appoint his or her own people to the Senate.

There are a couple of restrictions:

  1. Not only is there a maximum size of 105 - preventing the almost unlimited appointments that a British Prime Minister could do - but Canada's federal structure sets the number of Senators per province/territory, with Québec and Ontario being entitled to 24, while the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and Yukon are entitled to 1 each
  2. Senators have to retire by their 75th birthday

One fundamental difference with the House of Lords is that a Canadian Prime Minister tends to make appointments from his own party, rather than the British-style inviting the Leader of the Opposition and leader(s) of major minor parties to nominate. The other fundamental difference is that there is no real equivalent of the Crossbench peers who are a key part of the House of Lords.

The current composition is:

  • Conservative - 47
  • Independent-ish Liberal - 29
  • Independent - 6
  • Progressive Conservative - 1
  • vacant - 22

As with anything political, it is more complicated, and the non-Conservative Senators need to be explained in more detail.

The Progressive Conservatives were an old party, similar to the Conservative party we know in the United Kingdom. The October 1993 election was a disaster for them, being reduced to fifth-party status with just 2 MPs, and the Prime Minister, Kim Campbell, losing Vancouver Centre to the Liberals.

Something had happened a few years earlier which had been a factor in their decline. In November 1988, John Dahner, the Progressive Conservative MP for Alberta's Beaver River, died from cancer. March 1989 saw a by-election, with Deborah Gray becoming the Reform Party's first MP.

The November 1988 election had been the last of the traditional 3-party (Progressive Conservative, Liberal, New Democrats) ones, with the Reform Party coming a poor fourth, with just over 2% of the vote and no MPs.

In 1993, newcomers Bloc Québécois won 54 of Québec's 75 seats and became Canada's Official Opposition. Second in terms of votes - but with only 52 seats - was the Reform Party, eclipsing the Progressive Conservatives as the voice of the centre-right. The next election, June 1997, saw the Reform Party overtake Bloc Québécois in terms of seats, so its leader, Preston Manning, became Leader of the Opposition. The Progressive Conservatives increased to 20 MPs, but remained in fifth place.

The Reform Party's seats were all in western provinces - Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. In all of these (apart from Manitoba, where the Liberals topped the poll), it was the largest party in terms of votes and seats. Apart from an MP from Manitoba, the Progressive Conservatives were winning seats in provinces where the Reform Party was failing to win any - Newfoundland (now Newfoundland & Labrador), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario and Québec. Indeed, in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia (where it was the New Democrats who won a majority of the province's seats), the Progressive Conservatives came first in terms of number of votes.

November 2000 saw another election with the Canadian Alliance - the successor to the Reform Party - again forming the Official Opposition, and the Progressive Conservatives remaining in fifth place. Although the Alliance picked up a couple of seats in Ontario - where the Progressive Conservatives lost their sole seat - they were again winning seats in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan, failing to make real inroads anywhere else.

In December 2003, the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives mostly merged to form the Conservatives.

However, not taking part in the merger were a few politician, including Elaine McCoy of Alberta, who would go on to be appointed to the Senate in March 2005. When she reaches retirement in March 2021, that will be the end of the Progressive Conservatives as a parliamentary party.

There are 6 Independents - Pierre-Hugues Boisvenu (Québec), Patrick Brazeau (Québec), Anne Cools (Ontario), Michael Duffy (Prince Edward Island), Don Meredith (Ontario) and Pamela Wallin (Saskatchewan).

Brazeau, Duffy and Wallin were all initially Conservatives, who subsequently resigned the Conservative whip, followed by suspension for breaking rules. The suspensions only last until the election, so all 3 will be able to take their seats again when the Senate next meets. Whether the Conservatives let them re-join is another matter.

Boisvenu, Cools and Meredith are also ex-Conservatives (although Cools, currently the longest-serving Senator, was initially appointed to the Senate by Trudeau's father as a Liberal).

The current law sets election day to be the third Monday in October in the fourth calendar year after the previous election - hence the next election should be 21 October 2019. And, under the retirement rules, there will be other vacancies to be filled by the time this new Parliament is dissolved:

Retirement Senator Province Party
February 2016 Irving Gerstein Ontario Conservative
April 2016 Céline Hervieux-Payette Québec Independent Liberal
May 2016 David Smith Ontario Independent Liberal
August 2016 Michel Rivard Québec Conservative
January 2017 Jim Cowan Nova Scotia Independent Liberal
Wilfred Moore Nova Scotia Independent Liberal
Nancy Ruth Ontario Conservative
May 2017 Maria Chaput Manitoba Independent Liberal
August 2017 Bob Runciman Ontario Conservative
September 2017 George Baker Newfoundland & Labrador Independent Liberal
Libbe Hubley Prince Edward Island Independent Liberal
November 2017 Kelvin Ogilvie Nova Scotia Conservative
April 2018 Pana Merchant Saskatchewan Independent Liberal
May 2018 Nancy Raine British Columbia Conservative
August 2018 Anne Cools Ontario Independent
Betty Unger Alberta Conservative
September 2018 Art Eggleton Ontario Independent Liberal
November 2018 Nick Sibbeston Northwest Territories Independent Liberal
December 2018 Colin Kenny Ontario Independent Liberal
April 2019 Ghislain Maltais Québec Conservative
June 2019 Charlie Watt Québec Independent Liberal

So, from the maths it looks like Trudeau can have 22 Senators appointed in the very near future, and adding those to the 29 Independent Liberals gives him 51 Senators - just 2 short of an absolute majority when the Senate is at full capacity. In addition, during the course of this Parliament, he will be able to replace 8 Conservatives and 1 Independent with Liberals - bringing him to 60 Senators.

The Independent Liberals - I didn't get round to them, did I? In January 2014, Trudeau had all Liberal Senators removed from the Liberal caucus. According to him:

The Senate is broken and needs to be fixed. If the Senate serves a purpose at all, it is to act as a check on the extraordinary power of the prime minister and his office, especially in a majority government. The party structure in the Senate interferes with this responsibility. Taken together with patronage (appointments), partisanship within the Senate is a powerful, negative force. It reinforces the prime minister's power instead of checking it.

The article states:

If elected prime minister, Trudeau said he'd go further. He'd appoint only independent senators after employing an open, transparent process, with public input, for nominating worthy candidates — much the way recipients of the Order of Canada are chosen.

It sounds like Trudeau is looking at something like the House of Lords Appointments Commission, with its function in recommending crossbench peers.

If Trudeau is going down this route, then the Senate at the time this Parliament is dissolved will look something like this:

  • Crossbench - 43
  • Conservative - 39
  • Independent Liberal - 17
  • Independent [ex-Conservative] - 5
  • Progressive Conservative - 1

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