Saskatchewan will follow Alberta and become the second province to elect senators, giving Prime Minister Stephen Harper a major boost in his decades-long campaign for an elected second chamber of Parliament.
Officials in Saskatchewan are drafting a bill for the election of senators during elections for the provincial legislature. Premier Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party government hopes to introduce the legislation this fall.
"We've made the decision that we support Senate reform," Bill Boyd, provincial Intergovernmental Relations Minister, told The Globe and Mail. "Regardless of what other provinces are doing, we certainly want to move in this direction."
The change is seen as a way of altering the Senate without opening the Constitution, because the Prime Minister would still technically appoint senators - although he would be choosing from a list of people elected by Canadians.
News of the Saskatchewan legislation comes amid increasing criticism over Mr. Harper's refusal to fill Senate posts. There are now 14 vacancies in the 105-seat chamber. Senators and constitutional experts warn it will be almost one-third vacant by the end of next year, a situation that could lead to lawsuits against Ottawa alleging lack of representation.
Even some of Mr. Harper's own Senate reform supporters say he risks shrinking the Senate so much that its members will not be able to adequately fulfill their roles. The Senate will soon vote on a Liberal-sponsored bill that would force the Prime Minister to fill appointments within six months of a vacancy.
Mr. Harper has made only two appointments to the Senate since taking office: Michael Fortier from Quebec and Bert Brown of Alberta, Canada's only elected senator.
During the last election, the Prime Minister said appointments would be considered only under unusual circumstances, such as rectifying regional cabinet imbalances. Mr. Fortier is from Montreal, where the Tories lack representation.
With the Prime Minister's blessing, Mr. Brown has been touring provincial capitals since January, lobbying for Senate elections.
"This comes down to basically 14 people and their legislatures," said Mr. Brown, referring to the 13 premiers and the Prime Minister.
Mr. Brown, who was elected through Alberta referendums in 1998 and 2004 but was not appointed to the Senate until 2007, is aware of Saskatchewan's plans and hopes for more. "I think once one more province comes on side, inevitably they will all come on side." But with the growing number of vacancies, he said, provinces are running out of time.
"The provinces need to make some kind of a decision in the next 18 months. It can't go on forever. It's obvious. Either the Senate will have no seats at all ... or [the Prime Minister will]give up and say, 'Okay. Appoint them all.' There's basically the only two options he could possibly have."
Fellow Conservative Senator Hugh Segal said Mr. Brown's tour of the provinces has a good chance of creating a model that even future Liberal federal governments would have to follow.
"When it was just Alberta - Liberals having no prospect to speak of in Alberta at that time and perhaps since - they could have well concluded there was no risk to them of turning their back on that democratic option, but if it spreads, it's pretty hard to say as a general principle we're not going to take seriously those people chosen through an open, democratic election," he said.
But while Alberta and Saskatchewan are on side, other crucial provinces, such as Ontario, have refused to elect senators, saying they prefer that the Red Chamber be abolished.
Ned Franks, a constitutional expert at Queen's University in Kingston, said the lack of representation could eventually spark a province or an individual to launch a constitutional lawsuit.
"I believe that is possible and would work," he said. He added that the Senate could also argue at some point that its numbers have shrunk so much that they can no longer function.
Liberals say they have sympathy for what they describe as overworked Conservative senators, who are stretched thin trying to keep a quorum in committees and debating legislation in the chamber. But they say the proper way for the Prime Minister to reform the Senate is through constitutional talks.
"I don't think he likes the Constitution, quite frankly, and so he's trying to do it through the back door," said B.C. Liberal Senator Larry Campbell. "That's our major disagreement."
Roger Gibbins, head of the Canada West Foundation, agrees the shrinking Senate may prompt a lawsuit, and that a crisis is looming.
Prof. Gibbins, whose foundation is a strong promoter of an elected Senate, also said it is a risk for Mr. Harper to not appoint senators because the Liberals may return to office and fill the Senate with Liberals. Still, Prof. Gibbins said the Prime Minister should resist any temptation to begin appointing senators because to do so would demonstrate to opponents of an elected Senate that they were successful.
"Canadians don't believe that appointed senators represent them in any way. I think we're moving towards a crisis where we could have a second chamber that is dysfunctional, that can't carry on the work that needs to be done."
The Harper government has introduced two pieces of Senate reform legislation: One sets up a national system of provincial referendums in which voters would choose their nominees for Senate appointments; the other sets maximum terms of eight years for senators. Both bills have met resistance from the opposition parties.
Empty seats: Saving taxpayer dollars one vacant Senate seat at a time
The rising number of empty red seats is saving taxpayers about $3-million a year, according to data in the Public Accounts. The Senate received $80.6-million to operate in 2007 based on the cost of a full 105 seat Senate. But with more than a dozen vacancies, the Senate had $2.9-million left over at year end, which it returned to the federal government.
SENATE POSTS BY PROVINCE/TERRITORY
|Current||Province||By end of 2009|
|Senate seats filled||3||B.C.||3|
|Senate seats vacant||3||B.C.||3|
|Senate seats total||6||B.C.|
|Senate seats filled||6||Alberta||6|
|Senate seats vacant||0||Alberta||0|
|Senate seats total||6||Alberta|
|Senate seats filled||6||Sask.||5|
|Senate seats vacant||0||Sask.||1|
|Senate seats total||6||Sask.|
|Senate seats filled||6||Man.||5|
|Senate seats vacant||0||Man.||1|
|Senate seats total||6||Man.|
|Senate seats filled||20||Ont.||17|
|Senate seats vacant||2||Ont.||5|
|Senate seats total||22||Ont.|
|Senate seats filled||20||Que.||15|
|Senate seats vacant||2||Que.||7|
|Senate seats total||22||Que.|
|Senate seats filled||9||NB||7|
|Senate seats vacant||1||NB||3|
|Senate seats total||10||NB|
|Senate seats filled||7||NS||6|
|Senate seats vacant||3||NS||4|
|Senate seats total||10||NS|
|Senate seats filled||3||PEI||3|
|Senate seats vacant||1||PEI||1|
|Senate seats total||4||PEI|
|Senate seats filled||5||Nfld||4|
|Senate seats vacant||1||Nfld||2|
|Senate seats total||6||Nfld|
|Senate seats filled||0||Yukon||0|
|Senate seats vacant||1||Yukon||1|
|Senate seats total||1||Yukon|
|Senate seats filled||1||NWT||1|
|Senate seats vacant||0||NWT||0|
|Senate seats total||1||NWT|
|Senate seats filled||1||Nunavut||0|
|Senate seats vacant||0||Nunavut||1|
|Senate seats total||1||Nunavut|
14 vacancies......total (105)......15 additional vacancies
3 Progressive Conservative
1 Independent NDP
15 Set to retire before the end of 2009
*Anne C. Cools
CARRIE COCKBURN/ THE GLOBE AND MAIL; SOURCE: WWW.PARL.GC.CA