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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