If Premier Jason Kenney is ever looking for a career outside of politics, might I suggest stage magician? For he is a master of manipulation, misdirection and sleight of hand. He’s trying to convince Albertans that on October 18 he will pull elected senators out of a hat—while sawing the Constitution in half.
“As we committed to in our [election] platform, Albertans will go to the polls to vote on reforming equalization on saying ‘yes’ to a fair deal,” Kenney said last July while announcing details of a referendum vote on equalization. Never mind that equalization is a federal program enshrined in the Constitution and paid for by federal tax dollars collected from Canadians across the country; Kenney is creating the illusion that the referendum will somehow force Ottawa to begin renegotiations unilaterally with Alberta.
Then there’s the illusory senate elections to fill vacancies in the Upper House. In Canada, senators are appointed, not elected. Once upon a time the appointments were at the whim of the prime minister of the day and were largely political. Stuffing the Upper House with patronage appointments was indeed unseemly and at times obscene. Thus in 2016 Prime Minister Justin Trudeau set up the Independent Advisory Board for Senate Appointments to take patronage out of the process.
But that wasn’t enough for Kenney, who is invoking the ghosts of Alberta premiers past, including Don Getty and Ralph Klein, who held senate “elections” as a demonstration of defiance against a federal system they saw as unbalanced. Conservative prime ministers tend to honour Alberta’s “elections” and appoint the winners, while Liberal prime ministers do not—as Trudeau affirmed in July by announcing the appointment of the board’s choice of Banff mayor Karen Sorensen—thus reinforcing Alberta’s suspicions of Liberal governments.
That’s part of Kenney’s senate-election schtick—that he’s leader of “a government committed to Senate democracy,” unlike Trudeau. But if you look at this “democracy” argument a little closer, it all starts to fall apart, especially for Alberta.
Kenney is trying to convince Albertans that on October 18 he will pull elected senators out of a hat−while sawing the Constitution in half.
Let’s say for the sake of argument that all provinces followed Alberta’s example and held senate elections and that all prime ministers agreed to honour those elections. There’d be no messy constitutional changes to the current size or makeup of the Senate. Under this scenario, Ontario and Quebec would still have their allotment of 24 senators each. It’s not inconceivable that Quebec would elect 24 pipeline-hating, carbon-averse separatist senators. Nova Scotia, with a population of 970,000, would keep its 10 senators. Alberta, with more than four million people, would still have only six senators.
If you think the rest of Canada is already out to undermine Alberta, imagine how paranoid you’ll be with a regionally unbalanced Senate that starts to flex its muscles.
An elected Senate, instead of being content with its second-banana role as a place of “sober second thought,” could become a threat to the traditional base of power in the cabinet and in the Commons. We’d have two elected bodies fighting over which has primacy. And, because the senators would be elected by a provincewide vote, they would also compete with the premiers as the legitimate voice of the provinces.
Then there’s the awkward fact that “elected” senators would never face re-election and couldn’t be pried out of their jobs until the age of 75.
Proponents say the senate election is simply carrying on the fight launched by Premier Getty 30 years ago to get us a triple-e senate: one that is equal, effective and elected. Yes, but Getty’s vision was carefully thought out and avoided the trapdoors of Kenney’s senatorial parlour trick.
Under the triple-e plan, “elected” and “effective” were important, but the “equal” part held the most promise for Alberta, making sure every province had the same number of senators: eight.
Admittedly, what we have now is an anachronism modelled after the British House of Lords that seems to fly in the face of all that is fair and democratic. But simplistic stand-alone senate “elections” are also unfair and undemocratic.
One of the candidates in this year’s Alberta’s senate election seems to understand that. Duncan Kinney, director of Progress Alberta and a constant critic of Kenney, is campaigning for a senate job on the grounds that Canada’s senate is an anachronism that must be abolished.
Kenney’s senate elections, though, aren’t really about the senate. They, like the impotent referendum on equalization, are all about political misdirection. In a province still suffering an anemic economy with few new jobs, Kenney is trying to misdirect the anger of disgruntled Albertans at Trudeau, at the federal Liberals, at the federal system. Everywhere but at the magician himself.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.