Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Stéphane Dion on senate reform

I've long argued that the Conservative strategy on Senate reform is deeply flawed, and bad for both Western Canada and effective governance.

With debate underway on the latest Conservative Senate reform bill, one that seems destined to pass given their majority in the House and their numbers in the Senate, I was pleased to read Stéphane Dion's speech and remarks on the issue during the Commons debates as the Liberal intergovernmental affairs critic.

You can read the full comments here, or in the Hansard (starting around 1305) but here's an excerpt:
Madam Speaker, the Liberal Party does not oppose Senate reform, but it must be done right and in accordance with the Constitution.

There are three reasons the Liberal opposition cannot support the bill.

First, it is the conviction of the Liberal opposition that such an act would be unconstitutional. The fundamental changes it proposes cannot be implemented by Parliament alone. These changes would require the support of at least seven provinces, representing 50% of the Canadian population, notably because appointing senators through a patchwork of voluntary provincial senatorial elections is clearly a fundamental change; limiting the senators' tenure to nine years is a significant change; and giving the Prime Minister the power to name the totality of senators at the end of two mandates of four and a half years would strengthen his power considerably, another significant change.

Second, such an act would be against the interests of two of our provinces, Alberta and British Columbia. Here is why: practically speaking, an elected upper chamber would carry more weight in its dealings with the House of Commons than it does in its present form. The problem is that both western provinces are better represented in the House than they are in the Senate, and both provinces have only six senators, while some provinces have 10 with a population four or six times smaller.

Third, such an act could provoke frequent blockages in Parliament in the absence of a constitutional mechanism to resolve any conflicts that might arise between an elected House of Commons and an elected Senate.
I have to say I agree with every point that Dion made, and not just because I've made them all many times myself, if not quite as eloquently. But he also made one very interesting point that hadn't occurred to me before either:
It is important to realize that the government's muddled plan would have senators appointed through a patchwork system of optional provincial elections. Funding for these federal elections would come from the provinces, and even though they would be federal elections, the federal parties would be excluded from the electoral process. The provincial parties would control these federal elections. What a mess.
It's hardly the worst part of the Conservative plan, but it is an interesting wrinkle: no federal parties could officially participate in this system as envisioned. What would this do for spending limits, for example, and fundraising? Would it create an uneven playing field for Senators accross different provinces?

And it underscores another weakness: the Harper plan asks the provinces to undertake and fund elections to determine representation to a federal parliamentary chamber. We've known that all along but the more you think about it, the less sense it makes. You wouldn't propose the same for the House of Commons, would you?

It comes down to the same point I've been making all along: this piecework reform is a bad idea. if you want to reform the Senate, truly reform it. Hold takes with the provinces and open the constitution to do full-scale reform. Elected Senators through a federal process, equal regional representation, and clearly defined and limited responsibilities and/or a mechanism to avoid legislative gridlock between the legislative chambers. Or just abolish it. You can make a case for either, but I do feel a Senate based on equal regional representation as a stop on a rep by pop-based Commons has merit.

But as Dion argues, this patch-work, half-hearted pseudo reform is actually worse than real reform, particularly for Western Canada. Do we really want a Senate that will actually use its constitutionally mandated powers but with BC and Alberta vastly under-represented?

I wonder if the Conservative base out West will ever figure this out.

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Skinny Dipper said...

I do think that a proper reformed Senate is possible. I also think that we can have an elected House of Commons and an elected Senate working together. If there is paralysis between the House of Commons and Senate, the paralysis can be eliminated by giving the House of Commons some sort of super veto in which an extra majority would be required.

See for more information.

Randy said...

I just took a look at your post, Skinny Dipper. I see you and I both agree on the "square root law" (Penrose law. Rep-by-root?) for distributing seats. I support degressive proportionality (which both equal and square root distributions provide) for the Senate, but I've never been crazy about the equal senate idea, even though it's preferable to what we have now. Giving PEI as much clout as Ontario, while PEI's population is scarcely larger than some small Ontario cities never made sense to me.

The square root law is a compromise between equal and rep-by-pop (In a technical sense, equal and rep-by-pop are the two extremes, and square-root lies somewhere in the middle). Smaller provinces are still over-represented and larger ones under-represented, but not to the same degree as equal distribution. Also, unlike equal distribution, it's backed up by a rational argument (by Penrose, and others).

I'm not fixated on the square-root-law, mind you. I'm open to consider any model that gives degressive proportionality.

The biggest challenge to real, proper reform is the 7/50 rule. Under either equal representation or the square root law, some province is going to lose Senate seats, which will make it hard to get the 7 provinces needed or enough provinces to represent 50% or more of the population.

I really don't like the Harper reform plan either. My only hope is that if it goes through, all of its pitfalls will motivate the general population to get on board with a reform (or abolishment) movement.

I would also like to see a major overhaul of the way seats are distributed in the House of Commons.