Canada's senators may have to face voters
Being named to the Senate in Canada is a lot like winning the cash-for-life lottery. The pay is $61,000 a year, with an office, a staff, and perks such as cheap meals in government-subsidized restaurants.Skip to next paragraph
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And the status the job brings can't be ignored.
American senators just don't have it this good. And they have to deal with such exercises as elections. A Canadian senator never has to face the voters, and he can keep this sinecure until mandatory retirement at age 75, when he is eligible for a comfortable, inflation-indexed pension.
For many senators, the prime qualification for the job was a few years' slogging in the political trenches and the good fortune or foresight to pick the winning party.
But this may be coming to an end. A joint committee of the House of Commons and the Senate has recommended that Canadian senators be elected and represent regions and minority groups. The suggestion has outraged some sitting senators.
Canada's 104-seat Senate is patterned on the British House of Lords. It was designed to act as a brake on the elected members of Parliament. In the eyes of some observers, it has become a dumping ground. Instead of the US practice of naming political supporters to ambassadorial posts, in Canada they are named to the Senate.
Two recent appointments were Jerry Grafstein, who ran Liberal election campaigns, and Ann Cools, who lost as a Liberal candidate for Parliament. Mr. Grafstein had handled the advertising that got the Liberal Party reelected. Miss Cools is a former student radical who spent time in prison for her part in the destruction of a university computer in Montreal in 1969. She was pardoned before being named to the Senate.
It is the prime minister who decides who makes it into the Senate and who does not.
The reform committee, made up of both senators and elected members of Parliament, suggested that senators be elected for a period of nine years, after which they could not run again; that 40 seats be added to give broader representation from Canadian provinces; and that the Senate be allowed to block bills from the House of Commons, but only for a period of six months.
In its reports the committee said what many Canadians feel: that ''an appointed Senate no longer meets the needs of the Canadian federation.'' It added, ''An elected Senate is the only kind of Senate that can adequately fill what we think should be its principal role - the role of regional representation.''
In many ways the Senate fills that role now. The government of Pierre Trudeau has no elected members west of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Two Cabinet ministers from the west come from the appointed Senate.
The Conservatives did the same by appointing a senator from Quebec when they were in power in 1979 and had few members from the French-speaking province.
The idea of Senate reform has been around for more than 100 years, but it has never gotten past the talking stage. Now, however, many provinces favor an elected Senate. One, Manitoba, wants it abolished altogether.
Abolishing or electing the upper house is not unheard of in countries using the British parliamentary system. All 10 Canadian provinces have abolished the provincial version of the Senate. Countries such as Australia and Ireland have elected upper houses, both called Senates.
Reform of the Senate would require changes to Canada's new Constitution, which needs the approval of Parliament as well as two-thirds of the provinces.
Because the provinces approving such changes must account for at least half the country's population, Quebec - with about one-third of the population - could be a problem. But the proposal would allow French-speaking senators a veto on any legislation dealing with language rights. Quebec might now be in favor of reform.