Monday, May 30, 2011

Senate reform shouldn’t be a populist bandwagon of convenience

Following Stephen Harper’s appointment of several (more) failed Conservative candidates to the Senate, we’ve seen the usual outrage over the sheer contempt demonstrated by the moves. But for those who say Harper is trying to (semi) reform the upper chamber by bringing it into disrepute, some evidence is also emerging there may be some method to his madness.

In Newfoundland, where Fabian Manning’s move from Harper Senator to candidate rejected at the polls this week back to Harper Senator has raised hackles, the Liberal opposition leader is suddenly calling for Senate elections:

Newfoundland and Labrador should elect its first senator this fall, the province's opposition leader said Wednesday. "All it would take to elect a senator would be an extra ballot for voters to mark when they vote in this fall's provincial election," Liberal leader Yvonne Jones said in a news release.

The province’s Conservative Premier, incidentally, isn’t a fan of the idea.

And closer to home in Ontario, I’m hearing rumours Dalton McGuinty’s provincial Liberal government may add a Senate election to this fall’s scheduled provincial elections.

I must say, I’m skeptical of this sudden interest in Senate elections by two provincial Liberal parties. Given that I don’t recall this being a topic of discussion in these circles before, I’d have to guess the fact the federal Liberals are in the wilderness and won’t be wielding the power of appointment any time soon may have something to do with it.

More so, though, this seems to me to be a knee-jerk reaction to Harper’s provocations with these latest appointments. Jones and McGuinty may see this as a chance to jump on a populist bandwagon by pushing for Senate elections, hoping a populist wave may raise their own boats at the polls this fall.

Whether their political calculus is accurate or not, it’s a short-sighted move that would be bad for public policy and regional representation at the federal level. And, I suspect, it would play into Harper’s hands. Even if a Liberal senator may get elected in one of these elections (small risk in Ontario, I’d say, but maybe not in Newfoundland) and he’d have to appoint them, I think Harper would see it as a small price to pay for moving toward an elected senate giving him a victory on his version of Senate reform.

As I’ve written many times, Harper’s piecemeal Senate reform plan is dangerous. Electing Senators gives them legitimacy and the mandate to exercise their power.

  • We shouldn’t take that step until we consider just what we want Senators to do – how are they different from MPs and what should their legislative role be?
  • The current Senate composition also severely under-represents British Columbia. We need to fix the regional balance of the Senate before giving it real power and the legitimacy of elected members; otherwise we’re entrenching the unfair treatment of the West.
  • A Senate with a mix of elected members exercising their constitutional powers and appointed members not exercising those powers would be a mess.

Meaningful Senate reform would require constitutional amendment, an option the Conservatives have shown no interest in entertaining. Their piecemeal reforms are designed to give the appearance of reform but major planks, such as term limits, are likely wouldn’t survive a court challenge. It’s all just for show.

If we want to debate Senate reform we should do it full-hog. Until then, I support maintaining the status quo. Which means Harper can appoint whomever he wants, and if we object we can vote against him in four years.

In the interim, I’d urge my provincial cousins not to put populist calculations and provincial electoral expediency ahead of the future of the red chamber; gaining a few points of support provincially isn’t worth saddling us with a dysfunctional and disfigured yet powerful Senate. They need to look at the big picture.

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Anonymous said...

correct if I'm wrong,senate term limits would be the most important reform it has gone through since the 70's even without elections,right?

The Rat said...

Who exactly would bring the lawsuit against term limits? I wonder which party or which senator or which province (Quebec?) wants to wear the trough pig mantle. It's a hell of a thing to say a senator is constitutionally entitled to their entitlements, don't you think?

Koby said...

I told you the Conservatives would push this forward. Never underestimate the willingness of the Conservsatives to charge ahead with something insanely stupid.

Always content to play the Tin Man and Lion to Conservatives scarecrow, the Liberals remain largely mum on the subject.

Koby said...

Of course, Reformers like Rat have never thought this thing thought this thing out.

If he thinks that democracy is served by having one "effective" Senator for every 72,997 New Brunswick residents (10 senators in total) versus one Senator for every 685, 581 BC residents (6 senators in total) he is on crack.

BC gets screwed and Rat celebrates it as a victory for BC.

The Rat said...

Koby, why should the Senate be any different from the commons? Liberals balked at rep by pop seat distribution and I haven't heard any Liberals speak out against Quebec's 24% forever demand.

If I have a choice between an unrepresentative, unequal body stuffed with bag men and political losers and an elected, term limited, but unequal body, I'll take the latter. BC's representation won't change either way. Sure, there may be some problems with an elected senate, and maybe there will be some friction between the two houses (like there isn't now, hah!), but it's better than the alternative.

Koby said...

Rat: "Liberals balked at rep by pop seat distribution and I haven't heard any Liberals speak out against Quebec's 24% forever demand."

No party has properly addresed the issue. The Conservatives just happen to be the best of a very bad lot. Seats in the House of Commons are supposed to be assigned on basis of population, but in actuality that is not the case. Consider the 905. There are currently 4 plus million living in the 905 and there are currently 32 seats for an average of just over 127,000 people per riding. There are 6 ridings with over a 140,000 people in the 905, Bramalea - Gore - Malton (152,698) Brampton West (170,422) Halton (151,943), Mississauga - Erindale (143,361) Oak Ridges - Markham (169,642) and Vaughan (154,206). By contrast there are 4.5 million people in Sask, Man, NWT, Nuv, Yuk, PEI, NS, NFLD, and NB and there are 62 seats for an average of 72,000 people per riding. Moreover, there is but one riding in the 9, Selkirk Interlake (90,807), with over 90,000 people! Given current growth trends, the 2011 census might show there to be more people in the 905 than the aforementioned provinces and territories. Given population growth, Harper would have to give Ontario alone another 70 seats to make things half way equal.

Of course, the willingness of the Conservatives to give more seats to Ontario, BC and Alberta mean less than nothing if they going to transform the current senate into an "effective" body.

Rat: "If I have a choice between an unrepresentative, unequal body stuffed with bag men and political losers and an elected, term limited, but unequal body, I'll take the latter. BC's representation won't change either way."

Like I said, you have not given the issue any thought. Constitutionally senators have all kinds of power and every once in a blue moon the Senate has stalled major pieces of legislation (e.g., free trade and the GST). However the aforementioned instances of stalling are so rare they are the exceptions that prove just how "ineffective" the senate truly is. Moreover, no senate I can think of has pursued a legislative agenda of its own accord; opposing legislation is one thing; purposing legislation is quite another. The reason the senate is not an "effective" body is that senators are not elected and as such lack legitimacy. Furthermore, senators are members of legitimate federal political parties and the parties that they belong to are loath to have their unelected members exercise real authority least their actions undermine the party. Finally, the fact that it is the ruling federal party and not, say, provincial governments that appoint senators defines a clear pecking order, with the Senate answerable to the House.

The elephant in the living room, that you have amazingly failed to spot, is that if the senate's lack of effective powers flows from the senate's lack of legitimacy, then electing senators might provide the senate with a degree of legitimacy it currently does not hold. One problem with proceeding thusly is that current senators are free to serve until the age of 75. As a result, Harper's actions could either transform an unelected political body with no real power into a largely unelected political body with real political power or commit Canadians to the farcical and expensive act of electing people to office who hold no real power.

Of course, if Harper is successful in transforming the senate into an "effective" body, not only will BC be grossly underrepresented in the house of Commons it would also be grossly underrepresented in the Senate as well.

WesternGrit said...

We would HAVE TO open the Constitution, and the entire structure of gov't to properly reform the Senate. Otherwise we will simply waste billions$$$ to create a new electoral system, stock it with people who are tasked with nothing, and become mirrors of the House of Commons (House of Representatives now?).

We would then need to take the next step and create an "executive branch" - being an all-powerful PM with full veto power. Why not just erase the 49th Parallel while we're at it, huh?

Anyone who doesn't understand the respect most Senators have for the role, the amount of work they do simply has no clue about how our system works. (SENATORS are the backbones of most committees. MPs from the Commons are too busy dealing with party work and partisan work (very often) to spend much time in committee).

Like under-educated morons we stand and whine about the Senate, claiming they do little work (a lie), and consider re-created our entire system of gov't simply to deal with a small handful of Senators who misused their office. Does that make sense? When a company finds a board member in a challenging position, they don't summarily dismiss the board, all the executives, change the CEO, and merge with another company. You simply set better rules for the board members. Controls on spending.

How to fix the parts of the Senate that need fixing? NOT by appealing to the ignorance of the masses. No. You must enact some simple changes that will work. Attendance: A certain percentage required (outside of illness), or a percentage of salary is cut. While you're at it, let's also fix this with ALL MPs - including those in the Commons.

We don't need to re-invent the wheel. The Senate of Canada is responsible for literally millions of man-hours of valuable committee work and legislation. When something is not working in Canada, you can almost be certain that it will be a Senator who will spend the needed time to investigate it and make it work - without the shadow of seeking "re-election" all the time.

WesternGrit said...

Oh... And if someone wants to complain about "partisan" Senators... this is exactly what the system is made to balance. As parties are elected they appoint senators. Liberal PMs and PC PMs appointed Senators from all parties.

Groups which often don't get elected are the most well-represented in Senate: farmers, artists, musicians, women, visible minorities, etc. Community activists and Canadian heroes are in the Senate. People who care deeply about the nation as a whole.

Knowing the work of many Senators, I see how wonderfully NON-partisan their action is, and how involved in their communities they become. They truly provide sober second thought to our process.

leftdog said...

I see you are popular on smalldeadanimals - some may congratulate you .. I won't.

sharonapple88 said...

I wonder which party or which senator or which province (Quebec?) wants to wear the trough pig mantle.

Looks like it's going to be Quebec.

Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Pierre Moreau reiterated his province's view Monday that the federal government alone cannot reform the appointed upper chamber.

Moreau said any change must be done through a constitutional amendment, approved by at least seven provinces.

"It would be, I think, illegal to proceed unilaterally with a federal law and that's what we're opposed to," Moreau told The Canadian Press.

"We are not objecting to modernization of the Senate itself, but we think that any change for that chamber should go through a constitutional amendment ... That is the official position of Quebec; it has been the same for the last 20 years and more."

hitfan said...

If I could reform the Senate I would do it as follows:

100 Senators who don't represent any province, but represent Canada at large.

Senate elections occur at fixed dates every six years.

Voters choose their preferred political party to represent them in the Senate.

One percent of the vote means that the party gets one Senator in the upper chamber. Parties draw up lists of their candidates and are given seats according to their positions in the list.

A truly national Senate with proportional representation. No more disparities where Alberta and BC only get six Senators while New Brunswick gets ten that are written in the Constitution.

That would probably mean that fringe parties like the Christian Heritage Party would likely elect a senator. The Greens could get four or five, etc.

It's too radical an idea, of course. And there would never be an affective majority.

Or perhaps we should just do what Jack Layton proposes: abolish the Senate altogether.

Anonymous said...

haven't the liberals brought in term limits in the 70's from appointments to 75 yrs without opening up the constitution? So why would Harper need to open the constitution to bring term limits to 8 yrs? There is something that I'm missing,can someone please explain? Thank you!