At the time this article was
written Patrick Malcomson was a professor of political science at St.Thomas
University in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
On June 19, 1990 Stan Waters became
Canada's first "elected" Senator. Mr. Waters' election is of more
than passing or merely historical interest for a number of reasons. First, the
institution of an election, as a form of advisory referendum on Senate
appointments, demonstrates that demands for regional representation in the
national government are powerful enough to force provincial politicians to
establish new constitutional conventions. Secondly, the election of Mr. Waters
raises some interesting questions about the nature of electoral politics in any
future Senate elections. One wonders whether provincial support for such
elections will continue unabated, given that the provincial party in power
finished a distant third in the voting. Finally, Canada's first Senate election
should be considered in the context of the continuing Americanization of
Canadian politics. Canadians seem to be intent on buying American government on
the installment plan, and the election of a Senator can be seen as another
Alberta's Senatorial Selection Act
Alberta has long been one of the
most vociferous proponents of Senate reform. In 1983, the Alberta Legislative
Assembly established the Select Special Committee on Upper House Reform. Its
1985 report, Strengthening Canada: Reform of Canada's Senate has since
been the basis of the province's proposalsfor reform.
The Meech Lake Accord, signed in
1987 by the First Ministers of all the provinces but never ratified by all the
legislative assemblies, provided for joint appointment by the federal government
and the government of the province in which a vacancy occurred. The province
would submit a list of satisfactory candidates, and the federal government
would choose from the list. Alberta's Senate election was meant to be
consistent with both the existing constitutional requirements and with the
amendments that then appeared imminent. It would be a provisional reform. In
addition, the Alberta government hoped it would promote future Senate reform,
in the direction of the Triple-E Senate conceived in the report.
The provincial Conservative party
had worked conscientiously to make the cause of Senate reform their own, for
nowhere has Senate reform been more important in provincial politics than in
Alberta. However, in 1988 the then fledgling Reform Party appeared as though
they might become the new champions of the cause. Worried that they might lose
their advantage, the Conservatives decided to make Senate election legislation
a part of the government's record and introduced the Senatorial Selection
Act in the Alberta Legislature in February, 1989. Their fears of the Reform
Party were well founded. A few weeks later, in a federal by-election, Deborah
Grey was elected to the House of Commons – the Reform party had its first
Member of Parliament. Soon they would have their first Senator.
In what turned out to be a
pre-election throne speech, the government announced its intention to proceed
with legislation that would "provide a democratic foundation for the
Senate selection procedure." This bill was in fact the only legislation
introduced by the government in the one day February session preceding the
The provincial election was held on
March 20. The main issues in the campaign were the government's responsibility
for the financial collapse of Principal Trust, financial deals with the meat
packing industry, and Premier Getty's abilities as leader. Perhaps predictably,
the Conservatives used the proposed Senate election in an attempt to deflect
public attention from these issues. Canada's first Senate election was, then,
partly the result of provincial electoral politics. Mr. Getty attempted to use
the traditional "tried and true" method of winning a provincial
election in Alberta – he ran against Ottawa. Senate reform was his issue. The strategy
was not entirely successful, although the Conservatives would likely have fared
worse without it. The Conservative majority was only slightly reduced, but
their share of the popular vote declined by 7%. Premier Getty was defeated in
his own riding.
The Senatorial Selection Act,
Bill 11, was re-introduced to a new legislature on June 26, and received third
reading on August 15. Both opposition parties voted against the Bill. When the
Bill received Royal Assent on August 18, the stage was finally set for Canada's
first Senate election.
The Senatorial Selection Act
was designed with the existing provisions for Senate appointments in mind.
Section 8 explicitly recognizes the requirements of Section 23 of the Constitution
Act, 1867. Those seeking election must be Canadian citizens of at least 30
years of age possessing no less than $4,000 in real property; they must reside
in the province; and they cannot hold office in either the House of Commons or
the Alberta Legislative Assembly. To be nominated a person must file with the
province's Chief Electoral Officer the signatures of 1500 electors and a
deposit of $4,000. (The deposit is returned if the candidate receives 1/2 as
many votes as the winner.) Candidates may be endorsed by political parties or
run as independents.
The winning candidate is not
declared elected to the Senate. His or her name is to be "submitted by the
Government of Alberta to the Queen's Privy Council for Canada as [a] person who
may be summoned to the Senate." It is a convention of the constitution
that the actual summons takes place upon the advice of the Prime Minister.
Obviously the election in Alberta
did nothing more than attempt to modify this convention. The Prime Minister, it
is true, would now have the advice of the people of Alberta, courtesy of
Alberta's new legislation. Like all constitutional conventions, he could ignore
it at his own political peril. The failure of the Meech Lake Accord changed
nothing in this regard.
The Senate Election Campaign
The new legislation left the timing
of any Senate elections up to the provincial government. The election could be
held in conjunction with a provincial election, a by-election, or municipal
elections, or held on its own. Because Bill 11 had become law in August, the
government decided to hold the first election in conjunction with the municipal
elections in October, 1989.
The requirements for nomination did
not prove restrictive. Six candidates were nominated. In late August, Stan
Waters was elected by members of the Reform Party to be their candidate. Bill
Code, a lawyer well known in Alberta for having recently conducted an inquiry
into the collapse of Principal Trust, was acclaimed as the nominee of the
Liberal Party. Bert Brown, a long-time advocate of the Triple-E proposal for Senate
reform won the nomination of the Conservative Party. The New Democrats did not
run a candidate. (Ivor Dent filed nomination papers but subsequently withdrew).
In addition, Tom Sindlinger, Ken Paproski, and Gladys Taylor ran as
independents. No former cabinet ministers, from either level of government ran
for election, although some had suggested they would. And while two former
MLA's contested the election, they both did so as independents.
At the outset, the election did not
attract the voters' interest. The first all-candidates forum attracted only 20
members of the public. But subsequent forums drew larger numbers, and voter
interest in the election campaign increased steadily. On election day 621,616
of a possible 1.6 million ballots were cast. This represented a respectable 40%
turnout, which was 10% higher than the average turnout for municipal elections.
Ironically, one of the major issues
of the campaign was the proposed "Meech Lake" amendment to the
Constitution. Although the Meech Lake Accord had made the Senate election a
realistic political option for the Alberta government, four of the six
candidates were openly against the Accord. The Conservative Party endorsed the
Accord, and their nominee Bert Brown was clearly damaged by this in the campaign.
The other main issue in the
election was the federal government's proposal to institute a tax on goods and
services (GST). While the provincial Conservatives were against the tax, Mr.
Brown was again hurt by his affiliation with the federal Conservative party.
Nowhere was the federal government's tax reform more unpopular than Alberta.
Both issues point to an interesting
aspect of the election. All candidates argued that a Senator would have to be
free to vote against the House of Commons. How could Mr. Brown be an effective
Senator if he was a member of the party that controlled that House? The
independent candidates argued that this meant that only a Senator without party
affiliation could be effective. This left Mr. Brown, and to a lesser extent Mr.
Code, at a clear disadvantage. Mr. Waters', however, was in the best position
of all. He had all the electoral advantages of a political party. But his
independence was not an issue because his party had only one seat in the House
Finally, the popularity of the
provincial Conservatives has also waned since the provincial election. Clearly,
Mr. Getty's defeat had made the issue of his leadership even more pressing. And
there were still the troubling afterthoughts of the provincial campaign and the
Principal Trust affair. The results were not, therefore, surprising. The
election was much like a typical by-election. However, it was exceptional in
that – it served as a referendum on both the government in Edmonton and the one
The election results were as
Waters (Reform) 259,293 (42%)
Code (Lib) 139,809 (22.5%)
Brown (PC) 127,638 (20.5%)
Taylor (Ind) 38,534 (6%)
Paproski (Ind) 30,851 (5%)
Sindlinger (Ind) 25,491 (4%)
Stan Waters won both in the cities
and in the country. He won 13 of Alberta's 16 cities. He lost Medicine Hat to
Bert Brown, who lives in the area. He lost Edmonton and Fort MacMurray to Bill
Code. Waters won 53% of the rural vote. He polled close to 100,000 votes in
Calgary, where his nearest rival (Code) polled 42,000. This oddly conformed to
the existing voting pattern in provincial elections: Mr. Waters' support was
strongest in the areas that traditionally support the provincial Conservatives.
In the following nine months,
Premier Getty, who was returned to the legislature in a by-election pressed the
Prime Minister to advise the appointment of Stan Waters to the Senate. Mr.
Waters was not appointed until June, 1990. What is surprising is not that his
appointment took so long, but that it happened at all. Mr. Mulroney risked
setting a precedent. Senators may indeed continue to be appointed on the basis
of party and patronage. On the other hand, Ottawa may now be confronted with
the advice of the people in the form of an advisory referendum on a Senate
The odds, however, appear to be in
Ottawa's favour. Following the demise of the Meech Lake amendment, Premier
Getty stated there would be no further Senate "elections" in Alberta.
Other premiers may also look at the outcome of the Alberta election and conclude
that they have more to lose than to gain in such elections. But the promise of
Senate elections may be hard to resist for opposition parties – especially in
Western Canada. And there is no legal reason for not continuing the Alberta
practice. The Prime Minister will still be free to ignore – at his peril – the
advice of the people in a province.