This whole Senate referendum seems to have faded from the headlines, at least for now. Which is good, because the headlines deserve to be more Mulroney Airbus alleged shenanigans dominated, and this story should help on that front. Also, the capital punishment thing. And this immigration backlog is noteworthy too.
I’m sure the Senate thing will be back though, and as it’s an issue I’ve written on often in the past I did want to weigh in.
But first of all, the timing of the recent kerfuffle seems rather curious, didn’t it. It was certainly to Harper’s benefit to push the Mulroney thing off the front pages for a few days and Layton was fine with that, as long as it had the potential to sow dissension in Liberal ranks. They make a cute couple.
Anyway, on the issue itself, I’m actually on the record (as they say) in favour of abolishing the Senate. Turn it into a Loblaws. Or, more likely, office space I suppose. I highly doubt it will ever be abolished though, because it’s not as easy as it sounds, and (at least in theory) the Senate does (could) serve an important purpose: regional representation balancing the rep by pop of the House of Commons.
Abolishing the Senate would mean a constitutional amendment. The constitutional amending formula from 1982 requires an amendment be passed by the HoC, the Senate, and a two-thirds majority of the provincial legislatures representing at least 50 per cent of the national population. After the 1995 referendum the Chretien government also gave constitutional vetos to Ontario, Quebec, the Prarie Region, the Atlantic Region and, after some prodding, B.C.
Now, the purpose of the Senate is to balance-out the rep by pop of the HoC to ensure the increasingly populous regions (wassup Ontario!) don’t overly dominate the voices of the less populous regions. So, ask yourself, with a HoC increasingly dominated by Ontario, is, say, Quebec or the Maritimes with their declining populations likely to give-up their regional Senate counterweight, at least without substantial (in Quebec’s case additional) guarantees of representation not justified on rep by pop alone in the HoC? Not likely. At least one veto is all but guaranteed.
I think, given the amending process and the regional politics of this country, it’s fair to say the Senate is not going to be abolished any time soon. And it really is too pretty a chamber to turn into office space. Red is my favourite colour, and the paintings on the walls would be tough to relocate.
Why, then, this sudden debate on Senate abolition when everyone knows its very unlikely to ever happen? Because it’s a sop to Harper’s base, much like the death penalty thing, because his base feels a little abandoned as he continues making nice in his majority quest. And it has always been NDP policy, and even if it serves no purpose, the NDP are happy to take the spotlight off the Harper Cons for a bit if it means stirring the pot in the Liberal camp. Nothing new there. Just politics.
Back to policy though, if we can. If we’re going to have a Senate debate, why not have a real Senate debate? Not posturing to score political points like Jack and Steve are doing, but real, achievable reform?
Not the kind of piecemeal measures Harper has been taking, like appointing only elected Senators. As I’ve written in the past, these kind of piecemeal gestures are dangerous and counterproductive, and ensure real Senate reform will never happen.
By having a mix of elected and appointed Senators without real reform to the chamber and its role in government we create two classes of Senators: the legitimate elected and the illegitimate appointed. The powers of the Senate today are very vast, but they are rarely recognized, because senators recognize that as appointees they need to tread a fine line, and while they have a role (sober second yada yada) to play, they must not improperly trump the will of the elected MPs. However, elected Senators would be under no such reserve, they would feel free to use the full powers of their office. This could potentially lead to legislative gridlock.
Additionally, today the regional balance in the Senate is skewed. For example, B.C. is greatly underrepresented. By taking piecemeal steps like appointing elected Senators, steps that don’t require constitutional change, the motivation for and likelihood of real Senate reform diminished, and the regional inequalities are enshrined. Senators will be exercising real power, and B.C. will be continually shortchanged.
Senate reform needs to be all or nothing. If we can’t abolish the thing, let’s make it elected, equal and effective, although powers-wise we’d need to debate that, I’d prefer it be less powerful then the HoC. And heck, I’d even favour some kind of non-first past the post electoral system for the Red Chamber while we’re at it.
That would be if we were having a meaningful debate on Senate reform, however. Given that no one’s really interested in that though, or in attempting Charlottetown Accord II, I’m going to go back to cataloging Harper’s evil doings, Layton’s blatant hypocrisies, and other more relevant if less weight matters.