Saturday, June 16, 2007

Senate Reform is Liberal Party's Rubicon

Liberal senators unknowingly making strongest case for senate reform

On June 6, the Liberal party's senators won a small victory in their battle against senate reform, when they used their red chamber majority to vote in favour of relegating the Conservative government's term limits bill to review by the Supreme Court of Canada. The senate legal and constitutional affairs committee recommended that the bill be shelved indefinitely.

The Liberal party's blockade of Bill S-4 recently exceeded a full year.

The Liberal senators, and their party leader, Stephane Dion (who is allegedly in favour of senate reform), insist that any move to impose term limits on senators must be cleared with the provinces in order to be constitutional.

Yet since winning this small victory, these same Liberal senators have gone out of their way to demonstrate why senate reform, including of the variety proposed by the Conservatives, is so necessary in Canada.

This past week, the Conservatives and the Bloc Quebecois combined their numbers in the house to pass the 2007/08 federal budget, amidst narrowly founded complaints by Nova Scotia and Newfoundland that the Atlantic accord is being violated, and entirely unfounded complaints by Saskatchewan that promises to premier Lorne Calvert are being broken.

Yet, Liberal senators are promising to stonewall the budget in the upper chamber.

This entire situation puts Canada on the brink of a possible constitutional crisis -- one wherein an unelected body may essentially overrule Canada's elected representatives, and essentially force an election by rejecting a federal budget, which is unquestionably a confidence motion.

While under other minority government positions this could prove to be a boon for the opposition, recent polls have found that only 20 per cent of Canadians want Dion to become Prime Minister, and a whopping 52 per cent flat-out don't want him to be Prime Minister.

Unless the Liberals could pull off a 1979-esque Trudeau miracle, it's likely that Dion's leadership could sink their party in an upcoming election.

So naturally, Dion with his single-minded desire to be Prime Minister, doesn't want an election. This has led him to conflict with his own senators. He insists that the budget is now "the law".

The Tories have argued that the senate is "duty-bound" to approve the budget. The budget may be one of the few instances where the senate is bound by duty to approve an act of parliament. The powers of the budget, in many ways, reflects the agenda-setting powers of parliament. For the senate to reject the budget would essentially be an attempt to usurp this agenda-setting power, effectively wresting the arm of legislative government away from the democratic, elected parliament, and into the aristocratic, unelected senate.

In essence, the conflict over the budget allows the Liberals to act as if they are governing from the senate while they are actually in opposition in parliament. This has obvious constitutional implications.

Of course, one has to wonder what would happen to the Liberal's majority in the red chamber if eight-year term limits were imposed. It's unlikely that the Liberal party -- Canada's so-called "natural governing party" -- would be able to maintain an indefinite majority in the senate if their senators were shown the door after eight years.

If term limits for senators were coupled with federal legislation obligating the federal government to appoint any senators elected by provinces, and the Liberal ability to maintain dominance in the senate is severely threatened. Even while governing, they wouldn't be able to appoint exclusively Liberals to the senate under these conditions. Thus the quiet revelations found in Dion's comments regarding the appointment of elected Senator Bert Brown. Dion said he was "not sure if the Prime Minister chose the best person."

Perhaps Dion would have been happy if Prime Minister Harper had chosen someone unelected, as was the obvious tendency under the Liberal party.

This all puts Dion in a tenuous position: he is the leader of the Liberal party, yet his senators won't follow his lead, and are putting him at risk of an election that he won't likely win. He claims that he is in favour of senate reform, yet has done nothing to promote it, and has opposed it at every turn.

This budget crisis will prove to be an important litmus test for Dion. Either he has the power to rein in his senators, or he doesn't. Either he supports senate reform, or he doesn't. Either he is a leader, or he isn't.

It could prove to be the defining moment in his tenure as leader of the Liberal party. If he can't maintain order and control within his own party, the Liberals may be in search of a new leader sooner than many party members expected.

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