Of all the Senate’s inglorious attributes, its lack of gender parity is but one. Women currently hold just 36 per cent of the Red Chamber’s seats. While that’s better than the House of Commons where they hold 26 per cent, the gap is still a wide one.
Little wonder, then, if the New Year’s advice that is piling up on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s desk includes a now call for gender parity now in the unelected and unpopular upper chamber.
More than 80 prominent Canadian women including former prime minister Kim Campbell and former deputy PM Sheila Copps have urged Trudeau to build on his progressive decision to name women to half his cabinet posts by adopting the same approach to the Senate. They want him to appoint women to fill all 22 current Senate vacancies. That would bring instant parity to the Red Chamber.
“The 22 current vacancies should be filled by women from diverse backgrounds, including indigenous women, women from minority linguistic, racial and ethnic communities, and others, consistent with the Senate’s role in minority representation,” the group urged in a letter to Trudeau written by Donna Dasko, co-founder and former national chair of Equal Voice, and by Ceta Ramkhalawansingh, a former Toronto city councillor. The signatories include former politicians, academics, businesswomen and other professionals.
It’s an attractive idea, given Trudeau’s stated intention to make gender balance a priority as he proceeds to shake up the Senate. Certainly, he could do worse than name qualified women to all (or most) of the five Senate seats he intends to fill in the coming weeks. And over the longer term, balance should be the goal. A reformed Senate will by design include more women.
Even so, arbitrarily filling all 22 vacant seats with women would pre-empt the very “merit-based” reform process he has launched to clean up an institution that sank very low on Stephen Harper’s watch. Stacked with unfit Tory cronies, it was tainted by self-indulgent spending and was racked by allegations of fraud and bribery. Trudeau aims to restore public confidence. If he were to use his prerogative as PM to skew the process at this early stage, even with good intentions, he would discredit it from the get-go.
After cutting loose his own Liberal senators from the party caucus, Trudeau hopes to transform the Senate into a non-partisan, merit-based chamber. He intends to appoint a five-member advisory board to canvass for qualified Senate candidates and to put forward non-binding shortlists of five names from which he can choose. The board will consist of a federally-appointed chair and two members, plus two ad hoc members from the provinces or territories with vacancies.
As the Toronto Star has noted, this guarantees broad consultation and regional input. It also keeps the process in the PM’s hands, allowing the voters to hold him and his party accountable. And it should put forward plenty of credible women.
The Senate candidates will have to have a solid record of achievement, public service and proven integrity, be non-partisan and understand that their role is to analyze and revise legislation, investigate national issues, and champion regional, provincial and minority interests. As well, gender balance is an explicit goal.
If all goes as planned, the Senate’s days as a repository of party grandees, failed candidates, bagmen and hacks will be numbered.
Rather than pre-empt this system even before it is tried out, the Trudeau government should give it a chance to produce better results including more gender balance.
Given Trudeau’s commitment to fairness it may well turn out that his appointees are weighted toward women until equity is achieved. But Senate balance should be reachable without short-circuiting a process that is designed to turn up the best candidates for the job.