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MCCOLL: An Elected Senate Should Include Electoral Reform

In our early history, Albertans were electoral reform innovators. Let’s recapture that boldness in building a fair deal for all Canadians with a Triple-E Senate.

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In 1984, Alberta farmer Bert Brown plowed four famous words (and a letter) into his field: “Triple-E Senate or Else”. “Elected, equal, and effective”, was the rallying cry for many in the West who believed that a radically reformed Senate would be the key to protecting provinces against an often-hostile federal government. Brown would eventually run for the Reform Party and be elected as a Senator-in-Waiting, but would not enter the red chamber until his appointment by Stephen Harper in 2007.

The fight for Senate reform has continued, and has renewed importance today. Many Western-based groups and political parties in the last three decades pushed for it. The need for fair representation in the upper house is obvious to most Albertans, and Project Confederation includes Senate reform in its “New Alberta Agenda.”

While many groups demand senate reform, most are vague on the details. As the resident electoral reform wonk at the Western Standard, I’d like to propose a specific plan inspired by the proportional representation system Albertans used to elect urban MLAs between 1926 and 1955: The single transferable vote (STV).

Before diving into how to vote for the Senate, it’s important to understand the makeup and ideology behind the Senate. The current framework is based on the idea of dividing the nation into four regions, each with equal representation provided by 24 senators. The regions are Ontario (24), Quebec (24), Western Canada (6 each for British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba), and the Maritimes (10 each for Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, 4 for Prince Edward Island). When Newfoundland and Labrador joined Canada in 1949, the new province was granted 6 senators. The territories gained a single senator each in 1975 – and another for Nunavut in 1999 – bringing the total to 105 today.

Senate seats by province (source: WikiCommons)

A reformed Senate should move from one of arbitrary “equal” regions, to one of equal provinces. In this, each province has 12 senators. With an equal senate, there is no longer a need for small provinces to be overrepresented in the House of Commons, and the rule of having no fewer members of parliament than a province has senators could be repealed. 

Prince Edward Island would be reduced from four MPs down to two, while Saskatchewan, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland and Labrador would each lose a single MP. Alberta would gain three MPs, Ontario would gain two, and B.C. would gain one. 

To make senators responsible to someone besides themselves and the prime minister, senators should be elected during provincial elections, and mandate that senators run as members of provincial political parties. This is partly inspired by how German Länder (state) governments appoint representatives to their upper house after each state election, under their Länder party banners. 

It has been 65 years since the last Alberta STV ballot was cast – although Calgary City Council used a form of STV between 1917 and 1971 – so I doubt there are many readers with firsthand experience marking an STV ballot, save for recent immigrants from Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. 

Using STV to elect senators would involve creating three large electoral districts per province where voters use a ranked ballot to elect four senators under the Droop quota. As there will be multiple winners in each district, the major political parties will run multiple candidates. This empowers voters and eliminates the need to vote strategically – no more “vote splitting” boogieman or “throwing your vote away” – as voters can choose the ranking of individual candidates. To save you some math, to win a seat, a candidate needs 20 per cent of the vote plus 1. 

Thanks to computers and scannable ballots, counting the ranked votes is simple and painless. The first step is to redistribute extra votes from any candidate who received more votes than required to win – 20 per cent plus 1 – to the second-place candidates. Next, we start from the bottom and eliminate the most unpopular candidates – one at a time – while redistributing their votes based on the voters’ ranked preferences until we have four winners. Still confused? A seven minute video on STV can be found here and – for the math keeners – a three minute video on Droop can be found here

It’s more straightforward than defenders of the status quo claim, but it does require voters to pay attention.

The three remaining senators from the territories would be elected using a simple ranked ballot as there would still only be one senator per territory. With 12 senators per province and one per territory, the new Canadian Senate would have 123 equal and elected senators. Knowing they’ll face a hotly contested re-election battle under STV, there’s plenty of motivation to be effective.

In our early history, Albertans were electoral reform innovators. Let’s recapture that boldness in building a fair deal for all Canadians with a Triple-E Senate.

Alex McColl is the National Defence Columnist with the Western Standard and a Canadian military analyst

Opinion

BARNES: Albertans deserve the right to make the big decisions in referenda law

Guest column from Drew Barnes says that Alberta’s referendum law should be expanded to allow votes on big constitutional issues.

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Guest opinion column from Alberta MLA Drew Barnes

“I am and I will remain a populist, because those who listen to the people are doing their job.” Matteo Salvini.

At its core the word populism is the action that government policies should be determined by the will of the people, not the will of the elite. Direct democracy is the institutional populism in action.

There is debate over whether populism should be termed as a movement or an ideology. Since the actions of populist engagement can transcend the ideological spectrum, I believe it should be viewed as a movement, that can sometimes manifest itself ideologically. As a movement, populist participation can take place on all points of the spectrum. Ultimately, that is what is wanted from a democratic society – engagement from all points of the spectrum.

Now more than ever, we need a new grassroots-populist approach to politics. Grassroots politics by its nature suggests that it is a movement that is sparked from the bottom-up. Politicians who came from grassroots movements must never forget where they came from, or lose sight of what they came to do. We need more of the bottom-up approach to politics, and make listening to the people that elected us a priority.

This is taking place in some measure here in Alberta. Political party policy processes allow for constituency associations to generate policy proposals for conventions, where they are voted on by the membership. Every party in Alberta – with the exception of the NDP – uses a ‘one member, one vote’ system.

Another grassroots/populist tool is referenda, that when used the right way are a valuable democratic tool. Referendums however, must stay true to their purpose, and the process for bringing them forward must allow for citizens to craft their own – fair – wording on a question. This is not to say that any question – however subjectively worded – that anyone wants to ask should be put to a referendum. Therefore, the rules on the use of referendums must not be overly onerous, nor overly temperate.

Switzerland is a prime example of a country that takes full advantage of referendums, including citizens’ initiative. In their democratic system, referendums can occur up to four times annually. All citizens registered to vote can cast their ballot on issues affecting decisions within both their federal government and their cantons (autonomous provinces). Before each vote, all registered voters receive a package of booklets in the mail which provide details on the coming referendums. Since these referendums began in 1848, just under half of the referendum proposals have passed. Even if they don’t always pass, the process is crucial to starting conversations and keeping citizens involved in debate. Referendums also force political parties to reach beyond partisan lines to reach consensus.

Alberta’s legislature recently passed a bill that guides referendums on non-constitutional matters. While this is a positive step forward, there are issues in this bill that need improvement. 

For example, Albertans initiating a referendum might go through the process of collecting hundreds of thousands of signatures, only to have the cabinet alter the wording the question. While fair wording of the question is critical to the integrity of direct democracy, that issue is not best dealt with by politicians who may have a stake in the result. Instead, clear guidelines should be established in law on question wording, and left to non-partisan officials at Elections Alberta. 

And while the new referendum legislation is a big step forward over the status quo (that is, nothing), it deliberately bans citizens-initiated referendums on constitutional questions. This means that if Albertans wished to force a vote on adding property rights to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, that they would not be allowed. Similarly, Albertans are barred from forcing a vote on reforming the Senate, equalization, or internal free trade. Ominously, Albertans have no right to force a vote over the heads of the legislature on independence or other forms of sovereignty. 

I believe that Albertans can be trusted with the right of citizens’ initiative on all questions, both constitutional and non-constitutional. 

We trust the people to elect a government to run our systems, so why can’t we trust them to bring their own questions forward? 

Drew Barnes is the UCP MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat

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Opinion

LETTER: Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East

A reader says that Erin O’Toole isn’t “woke” enough to beat Trudeau in the East.

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In this ‘Era of Wokeness” along with the ascension of Black Lives Matter into the public consciousness, I believe that it would be detrimental to the Conservative Party of Canada to have Erin O’Toole as
it’s leader.

Mr O’Toole recently refused to use the word ‘racism’ and did not answer clearly when pressed on whether he believes it even exists. Erin O’Toole will hand the Trudeau Liberals an easy victory during the next election, should he become Tory leader. Canada cannot afford another four years of Justin Trudeau. 

Like it or not, most people in Ontario and Quebec (where all federal elections are ultimately decided owing to their number of allotted seats), are very much ‘woke’ on the issue of racism, as well as
sexism, homophobia, ect. In my experience, this also includes most Conservative Party of Canada voters in Eastern Canada.

Right-wing populism and social conservatism does well in Western Canada – but centrist Red Toryism is all they are prepared to accept in most of Ontario, Quebec and Atlantic Canada. CPC members in Western Canada need to keep this in mind when voting for their next leader. 

CPC members need to be sensible and realistic if they want to win the next federal election. 

Gila Kibner 
Edmonton, Alberta

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Opinion

LETTER: While Trudeau mislabels regular guns “military-style”, he is handing real assault weapons to the police

A reader says that Trudeau is militarizing the police while disarming Canadians.

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RE: Canada’s cops worried Liberal gun ban will hamper training

I enjoyed your article on the gun ban and how it will affect cops. A point of view the CBC would never share.

Perhaps another topic should be brought to the public is this: Although Justin Trudeau said there is no place for these weapons in Canada and Bill Blair said these  weapons have only one purpose – and that is for one soldier to kill another soldier – they gifted more deadly weapons to our local police forces through the Canadian Armed Forces., as was done recently in my hometown of St Thomas, Ontario.

What is the government’s agenda in giving true military assault weapons to the police and banning “military-style” (no legal definition) weapons from civilians. 

John Siberry
St. Thomas, ON

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