Roger Gibbins against Senate reform? The hell you say!

Even the departing head of a Western Canadian think tank that preached the Senate reform gospel for decades has had a sudden conversion on the road to Damascus.

Roger Gibbins, who steps down later this month as president and CEO of the Canada West Foundation, joins Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and former Stephen Harper campaign strategist Tom Flanagan among influential westerners who’ve come to the conclusion Senate reform—as currently envisioned—is either unnecessary or misguided.

…Gibbins said “another reality is starting to sink in”—a reality he concedes is “preaching against the doctrine” of the Canada West Foundation during his 14 years of leadership.

“If we have a Senate that’s elected and effective to some degree—but the seat distribution doesn’t change—then we’re into a situation where an elected Senate may be detrimental to the interests of the West,” said Gibbins.

The four western provinces are vastly under-represented in the 105-seat chamber, with only six seats each. The four Atlantic provinces, despite much smaller populations than the West, have a combined 30 seats; Ontario and Quebec each have 24.

As long as that distribution remains unchanged, Gibbins said: “To the extent that the Senate becomes a more influential body—and that’s uncertain—but to the extent that it does, it would shift power into Atlantic Canada and away from the West.”

That Gibbins is repeating the very arguments made by former Liberal intergovernmental affairs minister Stephane Dion is nothing short of jaw-dropping. –Bruce Cheadle for CP, yesterday

It’s jaw-dropping, that is, if you haven’t been following Roger Gibbins through twenty years of steady personal opposition to Senate reform, and particularly the “Triple-E” form which would make the Senate elected, equal (amongst the provinces), and effective. It’s a matter of a few minutes’ work to prepare a dossier on this, complete with hilariously antiquated dates:

Calgarian Roger Gibbins told it like it is here the other day at a seminar put on by the Institute for Political Involvement.

It’s time Westerners started asking what they really mean by a reformed Senate, what they are doing to themselves by clinging to it, and what they are going to do if they don’t get it.

Gibbins, chairman and head of the political science department at the University of Calgary, believes we should think instead of reforming the House of Commons.

Senate reform won’t come, he says, because as long as Quebec is in Canada it simply won’t permit its influence in one House of Parliament to be diminished in the name of provincial equality.

And if Quebec leaves, Gibbins went on to tell more than 300 top business people, politicians and academics, Ontario will then have more than 50 per cent of the Canadian people and it won’t consent to Senate reform, either.

He went on to add that his biggest fear for Canada today is not that Quebec will leave, but that Ottawa will grasp at some incompatible accommodation in order to persuade the province to remain in.

As far as Gibbins is concerned we have to begin planning now for the departure of Quebec, and that continued emphasis on changing the Senate merely gets in the way of that process. -William Gold, “Triple-E proposal needs a funeral”, Calgary Herald, Feb. 8, 1991


If the Triple-E model is neither possible nor desirable, and I would argue both, then radical reform of the House of Commons is essential if Canada is to remain united once Quebec leaves.

There is a way out of the Senate reform box, now that the departure of Quebec opens up the possibility of legislative reform in the House of Commons. It is imperative, therefore, that we begin to think through just how such reforms can be put into place, and how Western Canadians can be convinced that a new Canada without a Triple E Senate can still provide a congenial home. -Roger Gibbins [For It Is He], “Senate reform won’t work for Canada”, Calgary Herald, Feb. 14, 1991


Gibbins unabashedly maintains that Canada needs to adopt a more American style of government. But he also believes that westerners must drop their demand for a Triple-E Senate (elected, effective and equal).

The root of our problems lies, not with the Senate, but with Parliament, he says. And we are never going to solve that problem as long as Quebec is part of confederation.

Gibbins even goes so far as to suggest that any constitutional accommodation with Quebec “will cripple the prospects for legislative reform; any accommodation will necessarily be based on the enfeeblement, and not the revitalization of national parliamentary institutions.” -Gillian Steward, Postmedia News, February 19, 1991


Only two of 10 proposals in the Canada West Foundation’s “Action Plan to Address Western Discontent” even mentioned Parliament’s upper chamber. …So just what did Canada West recommend doing about the Senate?

Surprisingly, very little.

Next to Bert Brown’s Canadian Committee for a Triple-E Senate, the Canada West Foundation has been perhaps the staunchest, most visible advocate of a truly reformed Senate. Yet Canada West calls on the next government of Canada (the whole plan is a thinly veiled plea to putative Prime Minister Paul Martin) only to appoint senators “from lists submitted by provincial and territorial governments,” and “conduct a comprehensive review of non- constitutional options for Senate reform.”

…Gibbins admits the thinness of his foundation’s suggestions “took a couple of our board members by surprise.” (Frankly, one confided in me that he was “shocked, and more than a little p’ed off,” when he first heard what was being suggested.)

But eventually all board members were brought onside by Gibbins’ argument that it is “not strategically smart or technically correct” to reject incremental steps to Senate reform. “We cannot be all or nothing,” Gibbins insists. If a little reform can be achieved, then it should be grasped quickly while continuing the push for greater alterations. -Lorne Gunter, “Canada West plans much more than Senate reform”, Edmonton Journal, Sept. 13, 2003


The Triple E model is reflected in the current government’s commitment to the election of senators, although the government is silent with respect to the second two Es of the model.

However, neither the Triple E model nor the government’s commitment provides us with a satisfactory roadmap for going forward. Take, for instance, the commitment to elect senators. Few Canadians would quarrel with this as a starting principle, but there are huge questions around how such elections should be conducted.

…The current electoral system exaggerates and therefore exacerbates regional differences while at the same time exaggerating provincial homogeneity, neither of which serves Canadians well. Surely we do not want an electoral system for the Senate that virtually guarantees all Alberta senators will be Conservatives, all metro-Toronto senators will be Liberal, and all Quebec senators members of the Bloc.

We need a Senate that reflects diversity within regions as much as it reflects regions themselves. And, ideally, we want a Senate that reflects other forms of diversity within Canada. We can achieve this if we are smart in designing an electoral system, but we are not there yet. -Roger Gibbins, “Let’s not rush Senate reform”, Calgary Herald, Feb. 17, 2006

Just how many op-eds with headlines like “Senate reform: let’s stick it where the sun don’t shine” would Prof. Gibbins have to have written before it would no longer be a headline-making surprise that he’s against it?

[UPDATE, 3:30 pm: Gibbins addresses the apparent (or at least perceived) change in his Senate views here.]