Advice that won’t be taken

The Alberta Liberals will certainly boycott the province’s fall Senate election, as they have done on similar occasions in the past. They do this in the name of the principle that… oh, lord, I don’t know. I suppose they do it in the name of the principle that at every opportunity, they must display their deference to the federal Liberal party, even as they assert their independence from it, and must never miss a chance to insult Alberta voters gratuitously. Alberta Liberals are always quick to pose as victims of geographically fine-grained first-past-the-post elections, but given a chance to make some use of their province-wide support, in the only province-wide elections of any kind that occur anywhere in the country, they invariably back off and complain that Alberta is just going to vote for a bunch of right-wing nutcases anyway. Honestly, they don’t really act as though they like elections very much, and maybe losing 23 of them in a row will do that to you.

The stated principle upon which they refuse to participate is that incremental Senate reform is the enemy of the wholesale, constitutional Senate reform they supposedly support. Voting for a Senator, you see, merely entrenches the inequities of the current system. This doesn’t stop superannuated Alberta Liberal leaders from snatching Senate seats from Liberal federal governments as rewards for noble failure; somehow, doing that doesn’t entrench any inequities. The Alberta Liberals are not the only players of the old “support a categorically impossible major reform against a modest, feasible minor one” game, but they have certainly attained master-class certification at it.

As a practical matter, nobody can stop the Prime Minister from appointing whatever qualified person he likes to the Senate, whether that person has won an election or not. Alberta’s Liberals can go on sitting on the sidelines and repeating the federal opposition’s argument that the appointment of such a person is only unconstitutional if that person has won a procedurally fair election. This claim has always struck me as the kind of thing that Harvey Richards, Lawyer for Children would cook up, but I guess they think it’s working for them.

If I were in charge of the party, mind you, I’d take a different view. I’d want to make a show of welcoming electoral tests, even low-stakes ones. Low stakes are good for parties that have issues building trust with the electorate! The party badly needs to exercise its organizational capacity, the way armies occasionally test their ability to manoeuvre and coordinate, and the Senate election is a very low-cost occasion. Moreover, the Alberta right is split. Not that it matters much, since the PCs don’t endorse candidates in Senate elections. If the Liberals got behind a single Senator-in-waiting candidate—is Kevin Taft particularly busy?—and said “Let’s all vote for X and put Stephen Harper’s sincerity to the test,” they could conceivably win.

And maybe it’s a mere side benefit, but such a victory really might offer a possible chance to test the prime minister’s sincerity. Alberta’s Liberal Senator Tommy Banks has a date with destiny on December 17, 2011. He has done good work in the actually existing Senate. That body can only benefit from having more of his kind, and fewer people like Pamela Wallin—people driven so insane or inane by feelings of partisan obligation that after a quarter-century in electronic journalism they can firmly, even angrily, attest to the high heavens that video monitoring doesn’t keep people honest.




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Advice that won’t be taken

  1. Hey Colby i can't claim to know the ins and outs of the AB Libs [ who does?], but is it possible they also believe that an elected senate is simply a bad idea? If so, then adopting your scheme would be a little illogical, no? Sorry to blow down your house of straw, but Alberta liberals rule and Colby drools. [ i love that child lawyer stuff]

    • I strongly suspect the motives and policy of a lot of people may have been misrepresented in this article. I also raise my eyebrow that the author claims not to know the principle for opposing elections, then addresses their main principle.

    • The federal Conservatives think an elected House is a bad idea, but they still run in the elections.

  2. Seems like the strategy is to make the elected Senator routine some kind of constitutional convention, so that it binds the PM/GG (unconstitutional) to appoint elected Senators simply because of the public furor that would arise if they did not (“suspending democracy”, “coup d’etat” etc.) like we saw with the coalition fiasco. Not a bad plan. But why would a part whose regional base is so heavily underrepresented in the Senate be interested in granting legitimacy to the current setup? Once the Senate has legitimacy as a democratic body, it will be stuck in its current form. Only absurd amounts of bribery would convince the more intransigent provinces to accede to constitutional reform to correct the regional imbalance. In other words, I don’t understand the obsession.

    I guess the other alternative is to use Senate reform like they use ‘law-and-order’ or Repubs use abortion in the US. A permanent bugaboo to motivate the base, but one that you never intend to make meaningful progress on. We’ve seen Harper cancel his law-and-order agenda 2, 3 times now? After all, if he implemented it, he would have to cook up some more outrageous ideas to motivate the base, and more outrageous means more dangerous in terms of alienating the centre.

    • The bigger problem with the whole "we're establishing a new constitutional convention here" argument is that for every "elected" Senator the PM appoints from Alberta he appoints 30+ unelected Senators from everywhere else.

      If you appoint 1 person under convention X, and 33 people under convention Y, how exactly does convention X become the convention that binds future Prime Ministers???

      • I don't know if it does. But as you mention elsewhere it may create a sort of legimate senator vs illegimate senator scenario…maybe it's what they want, but wouldn't that be a warning sign for future problems with the HOCs?

    • Can anybody name a proven constitutional convention which came about because of a concerted plan to create a constitutional convention?

      Didn't think so. As a people, I think we read far too much into this "There could be a convention!" stuff.

      • Out of interest. If Harper had followed his election law in good faith and say the next PM had felt obliged to follow the law. Would this then be said to establsh a const. convention? Or would any future PM feel free [legally] to simply break it when it suited him/her?

        • So let`s see if Harper can get some cooperation in regards to a law about election timing. If he were to propose a law where there would be a fixed election date that would not only prevent the gov`t from springing an election but would prevent the opp.from forcing one would he have majority support in parliament ? Seems fair to me.

          A minority parliament would have a fixed election date in two and one-half years and a majority in four years. That extra year and a half without having to have an election might even encourage more majorities.

          • Ugh. I dislike fixed election dates because they don't take into account the circumstances going on at the time. They mean that the government can do whatever it wants from the day of election, and needs not worry until the next date The last thing you want is Liberals raising taxes by 8% two years and then dropping them 10% in the last six months to get elected.

            The house should be able to fall at any time.

        • My guess, which has no basis in anything, would be "no". but even if there was, breaking it wouldn't be illegal. Even common law trumps a mere convention.

      • And the morphology of conventions matters why exactly? Not that I think a "concerted plan" exists anyway – facing the reality that amending the constitution to effect substantive senate reform is currently an impossibility, proponents of senate elections are trying to establish a beachhead in a province or two in the hopes that others will follow and a new convention will result. Maybe it will, maybe it won't, but for the Alberta Libs to dismiss the effort out of hand and refuse to take part seems, as Cosh effectively conveys, kind of stupid.

  3. Aside from his fetish for stoned expos, Colby often has a point, in this case several:

    1) Opposing EEE style senate reform in Alberta is a little like proposing a national energy policy there.
    2) If Alberta's liberals want to tilt at windmills they should really join up with Jack. (Careful, however one of the conbots once explained to me that if we pursue renewable energy every bird on the planet will be destroyed by windmills, well except penguins, emu, ostrages and the most deadly bird on the planet, the Cassowary.)

    In addition, as long as Senate appointments are long-term, most of the objections to regional or provincial elections disappear. (As an aside, my prediction is that the number of Senators that voluntarily retire after 8 will magicly be precisely the same as the number of Reform parliamentarians that turn down their pensions.

    • If Ab libs feel that elected senate is itself a bad idea…i wouldn't say they were just tilting at windmills…merely pointing out they may be a bad idea. Even a hopeless principle is still principle. [ i should point out that i don't actually know they think this...i just hope they do]

  4. oops…one too many libs in there, my bad.

  5. So sell out a position they have to tactically gain a few voters next time around? We get enough of that in the ROC and the end results are never good.

    Losing 23 straight is not good either… but at least they aren't populist panderers; the most over-populated cadre of Canadian politicians.

    • Maybe they oughta change their name to: we're not liberals at all, especially those f*****g eastern kind…we're just smarter Conservatives? That might work…hard to get on a bill board though.

      • Or perhaps "Not-Conservative-but-Working-on-It Party"

        Also may not work on bill boards…

        • or…liberal in name only…

  6. Nich is right about one thing; Alberta Liberals are definetely not populist.

  7. That actually would be really interesting…if the Alberta Liberals got one of their own elected towards the Senate and then the ball landed in Harper's court as to whether to appoint them.

    My guess is that he would. My other guess is that they won't.

  8. The stated principle upon which they refuse to participate is that incremental Senate reform is the enemy of the wholesale, constitutional Senate reform they supposedly support.

    Yes, and how silly of them. Why support a constitutionally valid and legal change to our system when one can get voters all rilled up with an legally meaningless "change" to the system which simply pretends that the constitution doesn't exist, and that is nothing more than legally moot political posturing? No one's saying that it's somehow unconstitutional for the PM to appoint someone who's been "elected" by the people of a province in some manner, people are saying that it's ASININE to just go about Senate reform through a patchwork of ad hoc changes that try to "change" the constitution without actually touching the constitution, making such reforms meaningless (Not to mention dangerous. What happens when an "elected" Senator comes in to conflict with an unelected Senator? What happens when a Senator who "promised" to only serve an 8 year term realizes 8 years in that said promise was completely legally unenforceable, and maybe they'd like to stick around?).

    I'm against modest, "feasible" Senate "reform" that has no legal means whatsoever of withstanding Prime Ministerial whim and is constitutionally utterly meaningless and moot. I don't think that's a silly or overly partisan position to take.

    • The silly and partisan position of you and the Liberal Party on this issue is your fear of the electorate. Anybody who has any memory of constitutional reform in this country knows that the mechanisms needed to move that piece of legalize, at this time, would smother itself after endless go-arounds involving Native chiefs, Premiers, interest groups, plumbers and probably dog trainers.

      The only way to make the politicians, especially the premiers, move on Senate reform is for the electorate to make them feel they must act or they will be punished at the first opportunity. So Colby you are absolutely correct. The Liberals are wrong with their twisted logic that election results are not constitutional. If they are not willing to help with Senate reform then they should just get out of the way.

      • So elections trump the constitution, right? You also appear to be arguing that consulting all stakeholders [ hate that phrase…Canadians – even plumbers and dog trainers is somehow pointless since it's so riily rilly hard. Perhaps the desire to go this route has more to do with the fact that Meech showed Canadians have a mind of their own.
        Sure let's set a precedent that if you backload the system enough you can somehow override the necessary constitutional negotiations…separatists in particular would agree with you i'm sure.

        • I was being facetious in mentioning plumbers and dog trainers to illustrate the cumbersome requirements of " constitutional negotiations ". I don`t know what you mean by backloading and such but I do know that the only way a PM should open up that constitution again to reform the Senate is if he already knows he has the support of the necessary parties and especially the people. And it seems a good way to achieve that would be their participation in Senate elections.

          • By the way, I would like to thank Colby for his dedicated research on this subject and would he please, please keep at it.

        • "So elections trump the constitution, right?"

          Yes. Specifically, eight of them.

          • I'm not sure what that's a reference to.

          • Honestly, you're talking constitutionally this and constitutionally that at the same time you've never heard of the 7/50 amendment formula?

      • Canadian democracy is established at least as much by convention as it is by what is explicitly set out in constitutional documents. It is therefore entirely legitimate to effect change through the establishment of a new convention, like the appointment of senators who have demonstrated popular support. As with so many other things, the Liberals adopt their positions in reliance on the ignorance of the general population as to nuances of Canadian constittutional law and with the confidence that their comrades in the media (cept you, of course, Cosh) will not seek to enlighten them.

        • And of disproportionate representation for the provinces? Or is that not an issue?

        • No, covention does not trump the constitution. The supreme court ruled unanimously that failure to consult with the provinces and changes to the senate could not be just imposed [ they may have said a lot more, but i'm too lazy to look it up] You can appoint all the elected senators you like. it'll mean nothing constitutionally. If you want to argue that it could help create the necessary conditions for constitutional changes, that would be different.

          "As with so many other things, the Liberals adopt their positions in reliance on the ignorance of the general population as to nuances of Canadian constittutional law and with the confidence that their comrades in the media (cept you, of course, Cosh) will not seek to enlighten them"

          Ah…i'm sure there's a smidgin of actual logic in there somewhere…i'll get back to you if any jumps out at me…So far i've got liberals are liberals can be bothered to find out what constitutional law says…liberals bad.

    • The constitution's such a bummer, isn't it?

      And, again, no one's saying that the election is somehow "unconstitutional", what people are saying is that it's constitutionally meaningless. It's perfectly fine if one single province (who have had the same ruling party for the last 4 decades) decide unilaterally to hold elections, despite complaints from the official opposition, and it's perfectly fine if the Prime Minister chooses to appoint the person who wins said election to the Senate. Good on ya! However, if you think somehow that this and other incremental and legally unenforceable ad hoc changes to our system are going to somehow "reform" the Senate, you're dreaming in technicolor. I think there are still nine other provinces for one thing. Your absolute best case scenario with this method, imho, is attaining some scintilla of democratic legitimacy for a little less than 6% of the Senate representing one province. Slow clap….

      People are free to believe the PM and his party if they tell you that they're going to empty Lake Ontario with a teaspoon and no one will ever be able to fill it up again. I for one, however, think that rain (like the constitution) still exists, and that the Tories work with the teaspoon is laughable and a waste of time.

      • I have no interest in splitting hairs about whether you think elections are not unconstitutional but rather meaningless. You offer no solutions or even suggestions in regards to the Senate in much the same way the Liberal Party has always been afraid of change. But we now have a PM who is not afraid of change so this may be the best time for the people to make the Senate a more fair and useful place. If the Liberals ever get back in power they will just hide behind the Constitution and continue to use the Senate as their reward palace. I know Senate Reform will not be easy but do not underestimate the power of the electorate to institute change.

        • Just a minor point…ahem…repatriated constitution – charter – bi-lingualism = fear of change …need i continue? [ ok i know you were just talking about the senate…just saying.

          It's a bit rich to speculate on future lib govts returning to the trough when Mr Harper has set such a fine example, don't ya think?

          • Only Liberal loyalists believe the efforts of Trudeau to appease Quebec in the early 80`s will have any long term benefits to the country. I`m not talking about changing words and location of documents but real change involves changing institutions and policies.

            I dislike Senate appointments as much as you ( sorry, maybe you just dislike CPC Senate appointments) but, after waiting 2 years and leaving the seats empty, Harper had only 2 choices–continue to do nothing or make appointments.

          • Please outline for me where you think Canada would now be without those changes…the charter was a hel of a lot more than changing words or locations…it's just a tragedy the personal animosity between Trudeau and Levesque prevented it being signed onto by Quebec…although i doubt Rene ever intended to sign. Had the conservative vision prevailed we would presumably have gone the two nations route…another tragedy in my view. And hardly any more likely to have satisfied the nationalists in Quebec.

            I dislike poor choices for the senate…con/lib/ndp/other doesn't bother me in the least. I haven't checked but i'd wager Trudeau's choices for the senate could hardly be less suitable than Harper's have been.

        • Yes, the PM was mighty brave to appoint one senator who won an election from one province and only 33 unelected Senators from everywhere else. Backtracking on all of his election rhetoric about not appointing unelected Senators was truly inspiring. His courage to initiate change is virtually limitless. Like how he's fixed the dates of Canadian elections (although he hasn't), stopped people from being able to vote while wearing a veil (except he hasn't) and reformed the Senate (except he hasn't, and shows little interest in actually doing so in any way that's more than meaningless rhetorical window dressing).

          I completely agree that the Prime Minister likes to TALK about reforming the Senate, but I see no indication whatsoever of any commitment to actually enacting any real reforms. Frankly, I think Senate reform is like "law and order" legislation to Tories. They love talking about it so much that they're loathe to actually do anything substantive about it, or else they couldn't keep talking about it anymore.

          • Liberals constantly complain about the actions of others but have no sensible solutions or policies to offer– except to raise the GST.

          • conservatives constantly complain about the actions of others but have no sensible solutions or policies to offer– except to cut the GST.

      • That's really very well put LKO.

      • While I agree with you, at the same time, I think that refusing to participate in this election on the principle that it doesn't mean anything is a mistake.

        It does mean something. Maybe not legally, but to the people of Alberta it does.

        So you go at it from the "The people of Alberta are smarter than to believe this makes any difference, but if this is all the pittance that Harper is willing to offer to Alberta, we'll take it while demanding better."

        • Yeah, I agree with that. I think it would be pretty silly for Alberta Liberals to refuse to participate in this election because it's essentially meaningless constitutionally (although if they refuse to participate because they believe that an elected Senate would be a bad thing – and entirely legitimate argument put forward by plenty of smart people – then that's another matter).

          I have no problem with the elections, or the PM appointing the people being elected, and I agree that it's stupid for the Liberals to refuse to participate in the elections if they would also prefer to have an elected Senate.

          I have a BIG problem with calling any of this ad hoc, legally meaningless and completely non-binding maneuvering at the margins of the Senate appointment process "Senate Reform". That's just unbearably silly imho.

          • Maybe the Alberta Liberal party is acting in the best interests of Alberta.
            Consider that Alberta, with slightly less than 10% of the population, has slightly less than 10% of the seats in the Commons.
            Why would they want to give democratic legitimacy to the upper house, where it is underrepresented (6/105 – less than 6% of the total) and is out-voted by Quebec reps 4 to 1 (as opposed to less than 3 to 1 in the commons). Consider that NFLD, with one sixth of the population of Alberta, has equal authority in the Senate.
            And Albertans somehow want this institution to be democratically accountable, with people elected there with mandates to initiate policies, etc?
            to me, this whole elected or reformed Senate thing is completely useless and poorly thought out. And I am confounded that the ONLY people in the country for whom Senate reform is an issue are the same Harperites who continue to beleive him and support him we talks about Senate reform, all the while playing the exact same game of appointing hacks, just like (or worse) than every other PM.
            Grow up, children.

    • "No one's saying that it's somehow unconstitutional for the PM to appoint someone who's been "elected" by the people of a province in some manner"

      Well, they should. Its horrendously unconstitutional.

      "What happens when an "elected" Senator comes in to conflict with an unelected Senator?"

      Well, they can duke it out with pistols at high noon (in that case, put your money on the Alberta Conservative over the Ontario Liberal), or they can just argue with each other until something gives. If only we had some sort of history over the span on Confederation where two Senators were ever in conflict with another!

      • How is it "horrendously unconstitutional" for the PM to appoint the winner of an election to the Senate?

        As far as i can tell, the PM could appoint the winner of Canadian Idol to the Senate if he wanted to. Within very few restrictions (such as age) the PM can appoint pretty much anyone he darned well pleases to the Senate. How would the fact that one of the people he appointed ran in and won an election at some point in the past make any difference whatsoever to the constitutionality of the Prime Minister's appointment?

        • Actually its unconstitutional for the Prime Minister to appoint an elected Senator or an unelected Senator. You're right that neither case is more or less constitutional than the other.

          What IS extremely unconstitutional is that the Prime Minister appoints anybody to the Senate. The Constitution does not allow the Prime Minister to appoint Senators, only the Governor General.

  9. The Alberta Liberals remind me of what is often said of the Palestinians: they never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. All they have to do is look next door to B.C., to see how a Liberal party can make itself politically viable in a Western province. But that's part of the difference: the B.C. Liberals are pragmatic in a way that the Alberta Liberals often haven't been (though their tenure under Lawrence Decore showed some promise). Another problem is that the B.C. Liberals don't have anyone eating their lunch over on the right side of the spectrum (unless and until some nutbar fringe party like the Old BC Reform Party comes along — e.g., under the Return of Vander Zalm as HST slayer).

    • You're probably right about the lack of pragmatism on the part of AB libs. But you lost me on the BC arguement. They're not libs at all, just a cobbled together mish mash of older parties, non of which could be called philosophically liberal. The liberal part's a convenient if slightly dishonest label…i don't believe there 's a liberal in the whole bunch of em.
      Although just to prove myself wrong…there are some connections to this bunch of federal liberals…but again, many of them would feel more at home in the CPoC.

  10. One of the other big points that Colby has missed is the farcical manner in which Senate "consultative elections" have been held in Alberta. I studied the last round, and it was amazing to see how many people put their names forward, collected enough signatures to get on the ballot and then spent zero dollars on advertising. People heading to the polls (simultaneous with a provincial election) were instructed to choose four names from a list of ten meaningless names, while simultaneously being given contradictory advice to simply pick one (meaningless) name by certain candidates so as to not allow competitors' rankings to go up. As well, there is no practical discussion on how exactly these candidates who aligned themselves with provincial parties would sit in the Senate, given that the Senate is aligned on the basis of federal parties. This in part stems from some of the inherent structural problems with the debate over just what "Triple E" is supposed to represent, and how it is supposed to work, which were of course not addressed either in the farcical election.

    But the elephant in the room is that "Triple E" is a myth that wouldn't bear out in practice what it aims to achieve, even if by some miracle the constitution was amended, a deadlock-breaking mechanism were designed, and the Senate were somehow redesigned (which would be even more miraculous considering that not a single person can exactly outline a vision of just what their mythical reformed Senate is supposed to look like or what duties it is exactly supposed to perform). But the political class in Alberta is not exactly fond of thinking critically of the populist positions they adopt.

    What's the point of running a candidate in a farce of an election that has no legitimacy, and whose end product in the quest to "reform the Senate" is nothing more than an unworkable fantasy? So that they can test and/or spite Harper if one of their own gets elected? That hardly seems like a productive use of their time and resources.

    • "What's the point of running a candidate in a farce of an election that has no legitimacy, and whose end product in the quest to "reform the Senate" is nothing more than an unworkable fantasy?"

      Perhaps because having an elected representative in the Senate is desirable for its own sake?

      Even if Alberta is the only province ever to have Senate elections, I am in favour in having them for that reason alone. If other Canadians wish to turn up their noses at more democracy, that is their choice.

      • But do you simply want an elected Senate for the sake of an elected Senate, or do you actually have a vision for its powers and responsibilities? That's the bigger question. Right now, the only answer seems to be the former, and frankly that way only leads to madness, gridlock, and the creation of 105 more backbenchers who are only accountable to their party leaders. I fail to see how that is desirable for his own sake.

        • Why improve anything if you can't fix it altogether? I think you are making the perfect the enemy of the good.

          I have no problem with the Senate's current powers and responsibilities. Just a little more representation, please. That's 2 E's for the price of one, because an elected Senate will gain legitimacy and with it effectiveness. The third E, an equal Senate, I accept as unattainable this side of the Second Coming.

          This nightmare you prophesy with an elected Senate is implausible. Please explain how an elected senator can be held any more accountable to a party leader than an appointed one? Your objection to an elected Senate seems to be to that you don't want a second Parliament. But the dynamics are totally different because the Senate forms no government, has no patronage powers, has no confidence votes and the party leaders cannot hold renomination approval over its members heads.

          • There are at least a couple of holes in your argument, but for starters 1) the power of the Senate currently is an absolute veto, but it's rarely exercised because they know they're not an elected chamber. An elected Senate with the current powers would have no such compunction, and would be far less constrained in using it, thus, gridlock unless there is an effective mechanism designed, which likely would be in the hands of the executive; 2) Where do you get the notion that a party leader couldn't hold renomination approval over the heads of candidates? They ultimately control the party's electoral machinery and financing – which they could certainly hold over the heads of any Senate nominees. Again, it keeps power in the executive and turns the Senators into backbenchers. This would be especially true for Senators, because the cost of running for an elected Senate seat, given that they would be running province-wide rather than in a more geographically-limited riding, would likely be in the millions of dollars. All the more necessary for a party mechanism, and party control.

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