Saturday, August 29, 2009

If Harper really wanted to reform the Senate, I’d get on board

Reading Stephen Harper’s defence to criticism of his appointment of a slew of his close associates and cronies to the Senate, and a number of editorials from that dastardly Liberal media defending his orgy of pork, the main justification seems to be this: If he wants to reform the Senate, he has no choice but to stuff it with Conservative hacks.

That’s complete nonsense. With apologies to Brian Mulroney, I say this to Stephen: You did have a choice, sir! You could actually make a serious effort to reform the Senate.

You see, I support Senate reform. I’m just not sure Stephen Harper does. Oh, sure, he likes it as an issue. It plays well with his base to rail against the evil, unelected Senate. And the Senate is a handy bogeyman for him to blame his assorted inadequacies and short-comings on. Par example, after refusing Liberal offers to fast-track the bulk of his crime legislation, he finally gets it though the House. Then , after the Senate has it for less than a week, he accuses them of obstructionism. When legislation dies on the order paper because he prorogues parliament to avoid defeat, he blames the Senate. When the Senate wants to actually do its job of sober second though and not rubber-stamp bills in a day, well, you get the idea.

No, when it comes to reforming the Senate, Harper seems to be content to nibble around the edges. Sure, if a province elects someone, he’ll appoint them. Of course, Saskatchewan was on that road when he appointed Pamela Wallin. And he’ll make them promise to serve only eight years (it will be interesting to see if Doug Finley steps aside in eight years if the Liberals are in government and making appointments, won’t it?) And he’s half-heartedly tried to push a bill mandating term-limits, a bill the experts agree is unconstitutional.

As someone who wants real Senate reform, I actually find Harper’s nibbling around the edges dangerous, both to our democracy and to the cause of meaningful Senate reform. That’s because creating a mix of elected and unelected Senators, and electing Senators without addressing the balance of powers between the House of Commons and the Senate, and the inequities that currently exist around a lack of regional balance, is fraught with trouble.

Constitutionally, the Senate is nearly equal to the House of Commons in its powers. However, recognizing that as an unelected body it lacks the legitimacy to block the will of the elected House, it traditionally doesn’t exercise that power, contenting itself to examine legislation and investigate issues but largely respect the will of the lower house.

But in a Senate of elected Senators, who in theory can claim a legitimacy and a mandate of their own, what’s to prevent them from using that power? What if one party has a majority in the House and another party a majority in an elected Senate? You could have actual gridlock, not the fake gridlock Harper kvetches about today.

I also see problems in a Senate of mixed elected and appointed senators, some claiming the legitimacy of election choosing to use the full powers of their office, others appointed and taking a more measured approach. It’s a can of worms.

This piecemeal approach to Senate reform also raises regional issues. As it stands, the regional balance of the Senate is many years out of date. British Columbia, for example, is screwed by the current Senate make-up. As long as the Senate is a largely powerless chamber of sober second-thought, the inequity is troubling but not an outrage. But give the Senate the legitimacy of election and that changes, and under-represented regions such as BC will rightly cry foul if this isn't addressed.

That’s why Senate reform can’t be done piecemeal, as Harper is half-heartedly trying to do. Do the little things, such as elected Senators, and you take away the pressure to make the other, necessary changes, and you enshrine the regional inequities and other problems, and magnify them by giving the Senate legitimacy.

No, real and meaningful Senate reform means a constitutional amendment. It means the amending formula. It means sitting down with the provinces and negotiating regional representation, and elections, and term limits, and the balance of powers between House and Senate. It means lobbying for public support for that bill, and passing it through the provincial legislatures and the federal parliament.

And for those who say Harper needs to stack the Senate to pass legislation to reform it, I assure you: if such a constitutional amendment had the support of the people, the provinces and the Commons, the Senate would never stand in the way.

Harper, though, has no intention of even attempting the heavy-lifting necessary to truly reform the Senate. Having witnessed Meech and Charlottetown, I don’t necessarily blame him.

But if he isn’t willing to do what’s necessary then he should stop pretending he’s serious about Senate reform, and stop pretending his appointments this week were anything but what they were: an orgy of political cronyism in the best traditions of Canadian politics.

Because it was nothing to do with Senate reform.

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rockfish said...

Great post. Harper's only interest is using the senate as both a scapegoat and a trojan horse to his peeps. If he was serious he'd be utilizing the few CON provincial governments (besides Alta, there's Sask, BC, Nfld) to elect their senators and then putting them in. Where's the discussion with the provinces? Where's the discussion with Canadians?
As you note, all these sandbaggers recently appointed will likely be held to no signed agreement should their 'term' end under a Liberal government. I'm certainly wondering why no MSM member has asked and pried into seeing one of these 'signed' agreements by these senators. Where's the proof? Or are these CON hacks Harper's own sleeper cels who'll continue to be whining, kicking and bleating like schoolyard bullies well after their 'promise' has expired?

Barcs said...

Don't know about the other ones rockfish, but Saskatchewan is likely to elect senators in waiting as soon as the next provincial election.

And as for senate reform. We'll see in a little more than a year if Harper is serious. That's when the majority in the senate is likely to flip. Then we can (hopefully) watch the tory senators vote for reform even as the liberals senators stand up for their entitlements.

rockfish said...

As oppose to the CONs entitlements? As we've seen in all things in Harperville, its all about 'do as i say, I'll do as you did'... In almost every example of his 'principled stance' and reality, Harper has turned to doing just exactly what he damned the Liberals for doing. So in that sense, he's just legitimizing what they did, too. So when you have a CON dominated senate in a Liberal-led parliament, how do you circle that square? Especially when Harper's secret alliance will likely not honour their agreement and will represent a party that seems to condone impeding democracy (secret rules to obstruct committees, secret 'offers' to dying MPs, etc).

Patrick Ross said...

These are some of the worst arguments I've heard raised in a little while.

First off, Saskatchewan has made it clear that they will not elect Senators outside of their Provincial election cycle, which will not take place for another two to three years.

Grant Mitchell attempted to make a similar case to me regarding "piecemeal Senate reform", and I will tell you the same simple thing that I told him: this argument is specious.

Could one expect "piecemeal reform" to have unforeseen consequences, as Mitchell insisted? Almost certainly yes.

Then again, one can also expect broad and sweeping reform to have unforeseen consequences.

In the latter case, as opposed to the former, such consequences would be much more difficult to address, as opposed to incremental changes which would provide the government with greater opportunities to tweak the system of reform.

If anyone has shown themselves to not be in favour of Senate reform, it's the Liberal party.

Barcs said...

you are right rockfish.... he did say "business as usual unless you are willing to cooperate"

I think you can expect everything you just said. He will play by the same rules as the liberals.

A BCer in Toronto said...

Then we can (hopefully) watch the tory senators vote for reform even as the liberals senators stand up for their entitlements.

What, exactly, will they be able to vote for, barcs? As I wrote, substantive Senate reform requires constitutional ammendment, it can't be done by Senate alone.

The Conservatives are trying to push a term-limits bill through the Senate. Most of the experts I'd heard from, however, consider such legislation unconstitutional, and sure to be struck down by court challenge.

So blaming the Senate for a lack of Senate reform is a red herring, and the lack of a CPC majority in the Senate is a red herring as well. The fact is Harper has made no serious effort at reforming the Senate all on his own.

Patrick, other than your point on Saskatchewan (it will be interesting to see if Wallin resigns to contest that election in three years or less) you've made no argument whatsoever.

You criticize my argument but do little to rebut it, other than say yeah, but good stuff could happen to.

I've raised what I feel are legitimate issues in doing reform piecemeal. You say they can be mitigated. I'd like to hear how you propose that be done. If you think the concerns are overblown, I've told you why I think they aren't, you tell me why you think they are.

And you say good stuff could happen too, but fail to say what good stuff, how or why.

Did Grant Mitchell find your argument as un-compelling as I do?

LeDaro said...

I don't think it will be NDP or Bloc who would back down. As usual it will be Mr. Ignatieff. When push came to shove Ignatieff will give in.