The U.S. debt-ceiling dance and Canadian Senate reform -

The U.S. debt-ceiling dance and Canadian Senate reform

Canadians and Brits have no reason to feel superior to the U.S.


Much as I know it’s bad form to give away somebody else’s kicker, I can’t resist passing along the last paragraph of William Watson’s most recent (and typically excellent) column, which is about why Canadians (and Brits) shouldn’t feel all superior about their parliamentary system just because the U.S. way of government looks so dysfunctional during its current dance with debt default:

Finally, if our system is intrinsically better, why are we about to make it more like the Americans’? If we start electing our senators, as basic democratic principles require, the Senate will become legitimate. Come the day, as it surely will, when the Commons and Senate are controlled by different parties, and we will experience gridlock, too.

Watson is referring, of course, to the Harper government’s plan to reform the Senate by setting up a system to (sort of) elect senators, who would be subject to nine-year term limits, with no chance of renewal. The fundamental question is this: How would the House settle disputes with a Senate that could claim democratic legitimacy?

Nobody knows. Tory Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, who is opposing his own party’s Senate Reform Act, raises this troubling question in my story on the issue in this week’s Maclean’s.  A defence of the bill is provided by MP Tim Uppal, Harper’s secretary of state for democratic reform, but Uppal merely asserts that an elected Senate would, I suppose out of a respect for tradition, accept that the House must remain “paramount.”

In interviewing them for the story, I didn’t ask Nolin or Uppal about the U.S. comparison. Either might claim it supports their argument. Those in favour of a more potent Canadian Senate might contend that it would provide a U.S.-style check on the enormous power of a  prime minister who enjoys a House majority. Those opposed to a revamped Senate emboldened to defy the House might point to the prospect of U.S-style gridlock.

There is another aspect of this, which Nolin touched on in a part of my interview with him that I wasn’t able to fit into the story. He pointed out that while Canada’s federal parliament wasn’t designed with an effective legislative counterbalance to the majority party in the House, the federal government is held in check, in many policy areas, by the considerable clout of the provinces.

Although the system of fed-prov conferences—both the prime minister with the premiers and federal cabinet ministers with their provincial counterparts—isn’t written into the Constitution, it’s a well-established tradition that brings provincial concerns to the centre of national politics. “That’s unique to Canada,” Nolin said. “Is it perfect? Probably, no. But it works. Do we want the new Senate to jeopardize that? Probably, no.”

As Washington provides a timely lesson in what it means to have different branches of the government square off, the Harper plan to overhaul the Canadian Senate reform deserves wider debate. Let’s hope we get it in the fall when Uppal’s bill will go to a House committee for close study.


The U.S. debt-ceiling dance and Canadian Senate reform

  1. Yes, by all means, let’s turn ourselves into the US, and gain all the problems THEY have.

    [rolls eyes]

  2. I’ll note again that our Senate has already blocked the will of our elected representatives by killing a bill, which Pamela Wallin scoffingly refered to as #winning (I paraphrase) in a particularly grating As It Happens interview.

    • That is a very rare thing though, isn’t it?  The imposition of the will of the majority of elected members on everyone is not the be all and end all of our democratic process. 

    • The Senate has rarely blocked Bills, at least in such an ostentatious way as to vote them down. When it comes to private members business, and some government business, the Senate’s preferred tactic has been to stall the bill procedurally, or in some cases introduce amendments that the House can’t accept (they did this with the animal cruelty legislation first introduced by the Chretien government – a unrecognizably watered down version wasn’t passed until the first Harper government, which chose to support a Senator’s private bill rather than re-introduce the government legislation).

      The real trouble comes when an empowered Senate decides it’s going to exert its power by denying supply. This has happened in Australia, where the elected Senate has successfully forced elections by threatening to bankrupt the government. Even though the Senate can’t bring down the government in a confidence vote, it does have constitutional power to bring down governments that it has never used – the closest we came was the GST, but Mulroney used the appointment power to get the numbers to pass his budget.  

  3. “The fundamental question is this: How would the House settle disputes with a Senate that could claim democratic legitimacy?”

    How about we stop having technocrats debate this topic? Westminster system is supposed to let people work out their differences themselves, there are not many rules written down, so Canada will let relationship between Senate and H of C develop over decades and see what happens.

    Another power base within Parliament will make MPs more responsive to people, not less. If there are Senators making comments about inept MPs, there will be response. 

    Also, I think it is quaint how Canadian technocrats are telling one another how wonderful they are when economy over past 25-30 years has all been done on credit and bankers don’t seem to be too concerned at the moment with philosophical questions about Canadian Senate and American debt ceiling.

    There is no reason to believe Canada will be free from economic meltdown that is occurring right now and is about to get significantly worse. 


    NY Times: 

    “THERE is no shortage of explanations for the economy’s maddening inability to leave behind the Great Recession and start adding large numbers of jobs: The deficit is too big. The stimulus was flawed. China is overtaking us. Businesses are over-regulated. Wall Street is under-regulated ….

    But the real culprit — or at least the main one — has been hiding in plain sight. We are living through a tremendous bust. It isn’t simply a housing bust. It’s a fizzling of the great consumer bubble that was decades in the making.”

    Daily Telegraph:

    “The future of the euro is now in jeopardy. And if it breaks, many have warned, then that could spell not just the end of 65 years of European integration, but through its spillover effects on global capital markets, a second credit crunch and worldwide recession. We seem to be staring the biggest economic calamity since the 1930s in the face.”

    • Canada, unfortunately, is not run by technocrats…I don’t think we have any in fact

      Even our minister of science is a creationist

      • Even though our Minister of Science is a creationist (which is ridiculous), I rather like the fact that Canada isn’t run by technocrats. My entire family grew up in Québec and believe me, there’s nothing more infuriating than a bunch of social engineers who believe they know better than everyone else whilst simultaneously running your society into economic and and structural decline. Then all they can say is that it’s the fault of les crises des fédérales or la chalice de droite .

        Because, after all, how could they do wrong?

        • Technocrats are engineers and scientists

          There is no such thing as a ‘social engineer’.

          • Using engineers and scientists to run programs rather than people with economic sense or the private sector is engineering society to run in a certain way (their way). 

            Hence social engineers.

          • We don’t HAVE engineers and scientists running society….and the private sector and people with ‘economic sense’ don’t seem to have any.

            Which is why we have a global economic crisis

          • So if accountants and economists, like Paul Martin, Steven Harper and Gordon Brown, ran the world it’d be better?

            Most engineers and scientists work in the private sector and have a better understanding of the economic realities of their professions than outsiders.

            It’s politicians playing politics with whatever source that is available and plausible.  Real science or engineering has peer review double check to see where any bias might lay.  Political thinktanks and political parties are the sources of most dubious claims.  Always check the methodology for yourself to know what you’re really getting.

          • Hint: economic sense and the private sector is not mutually exclusive with engineers or scientists.

            Given that, why restrict ourselves to one skill-set when we can have both?

        • Wait…you are rooting for economists over ‘technocrats’?  Chicago/Calgary school economists (such as our current PM) are cheerleaders of the boom-bust economy that keeps the world economy in constant crisis.  Why should they be trusted to run government, over (for example) economists who revise their theories based on evidence?  Or other trained scientists, who deal in measurable facts rather than wishful ideology?

    • Tony, first Harper’s democratic perfidity has shown clearly that the Senate can defy and stalemate democratic government and therefore it needs to be eliminated in all forms – we only need the House of Commons. A stalemated democratic system simply hands effective power to corporations and wealthy elites as is now the case with the American stalemated government – corporations are firmly in control, and we can see how that is working out!?
      Second, the reason we are having economic problems has little to do with democratic government; it is the result of corporate ideological control and the corporate agenda of bankrupting democratic governments and strangling them with stalemated sessions. There is no reason for Canada to have either deficit or debt except that since the early ’70’s we have been led to believe erroneously that the only way the federal government can obtain money to spend is by taxing or borrowing. In the ’60’s we took a private for profit health system and nationalized it by purchasing it and we did so without either debt or high taxes. Our current situation has been manufactured by Harper and the preceding right agenda bogus ideology (corporate agenda) whose influence has perverted the Bank of Canada and allowed private banks to create CANADA’S money out of thin air based solely on debt. Private banks creating money from debt is a sure way to bankrupt any country and assure that all wealth is transferred from working folk to the wealthiest individuals. Government debt which inevitably occurs under this system because a government needs to be fiscally counter cyclical and keep consumer demand in our economy. It is singly and only consumer demand that creates jobs. Wealthy elites and their corporate fronts do not create consumer demand they kill it by sucking up all of the wealth and leaving consumers bankrupt.
      We need to keep democracy by eliminating the Senate, and allow the federal government and the Bank of Canada to act counter cyclically to support consumer spending and demand which will force corporations to hire and compete for the new business opportunities created by consumer demand.
      Loading corporations up with wealth sucked up from consumers has caused our current problems, not some phony government debt.
      Giving corporations money through tax breaks, exporting industrial jobs, and allowing financial rape in interest rates will not produce a single job – consumers are jobs creators not corporations. Corporations are not creating jobs in China they have been allowed to transfer jobs to Asia and any slave wage no worker rights jurisdiction which offers the corporations the best deal- which they have done with disgusting greedy abandon.

  4. Just a point of annoyance towards DISQUS: why the hell do I have to start a new post randomly to reply to someone because the “reply” button disappears after a couple of posts? Very annoying, since I keep accidently pushing the “Like” button on OriginalEmily’s posts.

    In reply to OriginalEmily1:

    Technocracy is having “specialized” people in charge of their respective portfolio’s. Stephen Harper is an economist. Paul Martin was a business man. Paul Martin balanced the budget and brought us into surplus. Stephen Harper brought us into deficit. There’s a dangerous and arrogant trend towards abandoning responsible government when those in charge believe they know better than everyone else because they’re “specialized” in their field.

    The Global Recession happened because governments believed that they could spend spend spend and run continuos deficits (the PIIGS) or that they could start two wars, cut taxes, and remove necessary oversight on financial institutions. 

    • No, that is not technocracy.

      THIS is technocracy

      As to the current economic crisis….it’s because we’re globalizing in the 21st century, using the financial architecture  of the immediate post-war world of the last century.

      PS…to reply to someone when the reply button disappears……click on the last reply button you see, and then address it with @   as in @whoever:disqus 

      It’s a workaround we’re using

      • Technocracy is having (from your Wikipedia link)  “a form of government in which engineers, scientists, health professionals, and other technical experts are in control of decision making in their respective fields.

        This is what I mean; I don’t trust giving power to those who say they have all the solutions because they’re specialized. The problem with having specialized people in power of their own respective fields is that governance is not a completely divided and walled off policy process. Someone who is highly qualified in medical expertise, for example, might have an utopian idea of how to fix our health-care dilemma, but with no real-world sense of economics or law such a program becomes what our health-care system in Québec is.

        When Bourassa came into power (who was a technocrat), the corruption of la grande noirceur didn’t end; it was that Bourassa campaigned and governed on a platform of “the government can solve everything.” But without the necessary checks and balances of a law & order government, the government quickly slid into influence peddling and (with the help of the P.Q.) a national myth of la modele Québécoise

        Perhaps I am partisan on this subject due to the lack of choice of a family doctor, the lack of choice of being able to go to secondary school, the lack of choice of being able to visit a private clinic/hospital, or our crumbling infrastructure; but being the most taxed society in North America (as well as the most government-oriented) and almost nothing to show for it certainly puts my doubts in the belief that simply electing specialized professionals will solve our problems. Allowing private enterprises (hopefully to run along-side certain social programs) and ensuring that they abide by the law seems a much better solution.

        • Yes, it’s much better to have farmers, auto workers, lawyers and used car salesmen in charge of running the country  [rolls eyes]

          Bourassa was a lawyer, not a technocrat.

          A technocrat involves the use of technology

          There are only 3 countries in N America, and our taxes are low.

          The US is very big on private enterprise….and they are broke.

          • Yes, it’s better to have a system of government where the upper-middle class and the rich have all say on the policy and governance of a country because the others are unqualified and non-specialized. After all, everyone else is an uneducated inbred red-neck hick who doesn’t appreciate what’s given to him, right? My point: technocracy gives more power to those you define as qualified; thus all others are illegitimate. Not my preferred form of democracy. 

            Bourassa was a technocrat; he banned english on public signs and promoted government supremacy in health and education whom were to be run by experts, rather than promoting an alternative model to work along side the then (and now virtually extinct) private sector. 

            Sorry Emily, Québec is officially a nation within Canada. Much diversity exists within Canada and should persist; another reason why power shouldn’t be centralized within a group of “experts” as such a move would rip apart the whole point of this Confederacy; of  two nations (or more modernly First Nations and Inuit) as forming a moral, political, economic, and military union. Centralization of power means someone else’s power is lessened. Such a system cannot persist in our country. Nevertheless, Québec has much more say in taxation and economic policy than the rest of the provinces (Québec has it’s own income tax, “Revenue Québec”). And our taxes aren’t low; 5% federal, 8.5% provincial (not to mention that the provincial tax is taxed after the federal tax is applied, resulting on a tax-on-tax). We pay more than anyone else in North America and have a much bigger and intrusive government run by “experts.” If a technocratic-sympathizing government was so superior, we’d have something to show for it. Québec is run by her government… and we are broke.

            The U.S. is very big on private enterprise, but not very big on fair and equal law. A corporation is allowed to get away with far too much; the argument (which I find ridiculous) is that a corporation is considered a legal “entity”. But what a hypocrisy when a legal “entity” has more economic leverage than a legal person! Case in point: complexity is fraud. Letting a complex financial system ruled by a small corporatist elite run the economy is just as bad as having a small group of so-called specialists run a society. In democracy, everyone can vote, everyone can run, thus everyone is qualified. Whether they survive or not depends on the electorate; not on someone else’s definition of who’s “qualified” or not.

          • Much better to have power concentrated in the hands of a few non-experts and political hacks, as we do now? The only people who matter are Harper and some members of his PMO, and two or three ministers. The rest of cabinet are meat puppets, never mind the backbenchers. I don’t know why it’s better to have non-experts running the show operating out of ideology and denial of evidence rather than technocrats.

            It is ridiculous that our science minister believes in fairy tales and voodoo, and does not have an even rudimentary understanding of very high profile scientific concepts.

          • tech·noc·ra·cy
               /tɛkˈnɒk rə 1.
            a theory and movement, prominent about 1932, advocating control of industrial resources, reform of financial institutions, and reorganization of the social system, based on the findings of technologists and engineers.

            Random House, Inc. 2011.


            Yes, I would rather have that than ‘uneducated inbred red-neck hicks’ running our country.

    • Harper is not an economist. He’s a political scientist if anything. He’s never worked in the field. He’s never been published as far as I know (aside from his Master’s thesis). He’s a professional lobbyist and political operative.

  5. This topic has been gone over in far greater detail and depth by all sorts of highly educated people since before 1867, and the fact is that the senate ended up being appointed so that it WOULDN’T COMPETE with the house of commons.

    I would agree that a more merit-based system of appointment would be preferable to reduce the partisanship, but beyond that it almost seems like this issue is simply meant to keep the public occupied with something while keeping the western base happy with the politics of it.

    I mean come on, what is it that is supposedly to be acheived by these changes? They can’t really make it democratic and the term changes will increase pension costs for no discernable reason, ie every nine years you increase the number of senators on pension by another 105 individuals. Up to now we haven’t really had a lot of senators on pensions because they usually serve a long time and then die within ten years of leaving the senate. Under this system we’re bound to pay through the nose.

    The constitution is EXPLICIT on this point: Without opening the constitution the method of selecting senators can’t be changed. Simple as that. The supreme court is sure to see this “sort of elected” system as an attempt to bypass the constitution if its a legitimate change, so if they don’t kill it outright it’ll only be because they don’t consider it democratic either, ie not a substantive change, thus undermining Harper’s supposed key point for making the change in the first place.

    So we’re going to have all this infighting and division over something that matters NOT ONE DAMN WHIT one way or another, and I can’t help feeling that this is the really best this government has to offer in terms of a future vision for this country.

    Gawd these people suck.

  6. I prefer the elected,”maybe there will be a roadblock” arrangement versus the Senate can stop it three times and then a HofC majority just makes it happen arrangement. There has to be some method better than what we have. The only solution appears to be elect the bloated number in the Senate and add to the HofC. Somehow I don’t think the answer to any of Canada’s issues are addressed through more politicians.