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Senate reform: it’s Harper vs. the experts—again


 

Peter O’Neil of the Vancouver Sun takes an enterprising approach in this story that bids to inject some life into the debate over the federal government’s Senate Reform Act. O’Neil surveyed professors at British Columbia and Alberta universities, and found that 18 of 25 who responded didn’t like the bill, which is now being debated in Parliament.

It’s telling, but not all that surprising, that political science and constitutional law profs don’t much like the government’s plan to limit Senate terms to nine years and set up an oddball system for non-binding elections (future prime ministers wouldn’t have to appoint the winners to the upper chamber, but would presumably face strong pressure to go along with the voters’ picks).

There are two problems likely to trouble academics, and anyone else who pays much attention:

Firstly, the bill does nothing to redress the historic imbalance in the Senate that leaves British Columbia and Alberta with six senators each, while New Brunswick and Nova Scotia get 10 senators apiece, since changing the numbers would require a full-blown constitutional negotiation to get the required agreement of seven provinces representing more than half the population.

Secondly, the bill would ultimately lend senators a hitherto unfamiliar sort of democratic legitimacy, and yet do so without spelling out how the Senate’s relationship with the House of Commons should change, leaving open the question of exactly how powerful senators would eventually become relative to MPs.

When I last reported on this for Maclean’s, I thought David E. Smith, a University of Saskatchewan professor emeritus of political science summed it up nicely:  “They’d be implementing some sort of shadow electoral system. It would help if we could get some sense of what the objective is here. Is it to have a check on the lower chamber? Is it to represent under-represented sections of the country? It’s just not clear.”

In fact, the lack of clarity about how potent the Senate might become and in what areas is regarded by some advocates of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s approach as a tactical benefit of the bill. O’Neil quotes Canada West Foundation president Roger Gibbins, professor emeritus at the University of Calgary, saying, ” “The final outcome is by no means clear, but there is a need for creative destruction.”

Creative destruction? He means the reformed Senate would shift the balance of power in the federal Parliament in an unpredictable way, and thus force a future round of Constitutional negotiations between Ottawa and the provinces in which the details—you know, how Canadians will be governed, that kind of thing—would be sorted out.

Gibbins was a bit more explicit in advocating this back door route to full-blown constitutional reform when I asked him about it back when Harper was first toying with the Senate in 2006. “It’s an argument I’ve always been hesitant to go public with,” he said then. “But the only way you end up with more comprehensive reform is if you destabilize the status quo to the point where Canadians say, ‘This is a mess, and we’ve got to sort this out.’ ”

That’s how we’re going to overhaul our core democratic institutions? No wonder all those B.C. and Alberta professors don’t like what they see. But in Harper’s Ottawa, as we’ve learned, a preponderance of expert opinion against a move is generally seen as grounds for pressing ahead.

 

 


 

Senate reform: it’s Harper vs. the experts—again

  1. The Senate is not reformable. Or even necessary.  Abolish it.

  2. I tend to agree with Christopher Moore on the senate:

    “… Complaints about an ineffective Canadian senate have been a familiar Parliament Hill battle cry for decades. It’s a refrain the fathers of Confederation would be only too happy to hear, said historian Christopher Moore.

    There’s a common misconception that the founding fathers, leery of an elected Senate giving too much power to the masses, chose to appoint senators as a way of exerting control.

    “I think it’s absolutely the other way around,” Moore said.

    “Confederation makers back in the 1860s made the Senate appointed to ensure that it would be weak, to ensure that it wouldn’t have legitimacy to challenge the democratically elected House of Commons….”

    http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2011/06/30/canada-myths-think-you-kn_n_887578.html

    The senate provides valuable insight in many situations, but clearly needs to be secondary to the House of Commons.

    As such, I think it works perfectly well as is, and frankly, all this complaining about it doesn’t seem grounded in any sensible facts whatsoever.

    • The Senate does the best review of legislation.  They actually take it seriously.  The committees in the House are now nothing but a joke.  It’s like QP with guests. The witnesses are used as props. So maybe we should let the Senate do the committee work and shut down the House committees.

      • Hey Jan,

        I agree they do good work, which is more or less why I wouldn’t touch it.

        I suspect that the second you make popularity an issue, you’d suddenly see the same nonsense there as you see in the House of Commons.

        It’s the main reason I don’t support electing judges either. Decisions should be fact based, not keep-your-job based eh?

        Cheers.

        • And the idea that by electing them they are responsible to the people who elected them, has proven  not to be the case.  Bert Brown has said his loyalty is to Stephen Harper.  And by appointing them even for 9 years, they basically get two terms without voters having any chance to either renew or reject their mandate.  Of course, even if a province chooses to hold Senate elections, under Harper’s proposal, he’s not obligated to pick them.  The whole thing is so screwy I don’t know how he can promote it with a straight face.

          • Yeah, pretty much a farce from the word go eh? LOL

      • There’s another great idea from you today, Jan!

        • I have  turkey on the brain, that must be what’s influencing me today.  :-)

  3. “I thought David E. Smith, a University of Saskatchewan professor emeritus of political science summed it up nicely:  “They’d be implementing some sort of shadow electoral system. It would help if we could get some sense of what the objective is here. Is it to have a check on the lower chamber? Is it to represent under-represented sections of the country? It’s just not clear.”

    You’re asking the wrong question Prof Smith. There is no why? Rhyme or reason. There is only dogma. Elections = democracy pure and simple. Welcome to the age of anti-intellectualism bud.

  4. Harper is likely THE expert on this subject with few exceptions.  He should avoid falling for the recommendations of so-called experts who teach at universities and colleges.  They teach because they can’t do, as the old saying goes.  Egg-headed advice is worth hearing, but be very, very cautious if you plan on listening.

  5. I would like to see a report from each and every Senator indicating what they have done in the last 12 months to justify their existence.
    And to bring up an old problem, they should include an itemized report on their submitted expenses.
    Time to abolish this “club” of partisan appointments.
    Let’s have a referendum country wide on this issue. And since I raised the question and the vote abolishes the Senate, I want my bonus from the $Millions that we will save. Just like they are offering the managers who cut their budgets.

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