Thursday, September 13, 2007

Stephen Harper is Right, or, Senate Reform or Bust

If the Senate can’t be democratized, then it does have to go

Apparently, Prime Minister Stephen Harper doesn’t have to do or say much in order to provoke a controversy these days.

Lately, it’s taken no more than a single line of a single speech.

While addressing the Australian parliament on Tuesday, Harper discussed the success of Senate reform in Australia, and addressed Canada’s case of “Senate envy”.

“I can’t help but notice, however, that you have done a much better job than us with at least one of our Westminster institutions, the Upper House,” Harper announced. “As one Canadian political scientist I know likes to say, when we look at Australia, we suffer from ‘Senate envy.’”

“In Canada, Senators remain appointed, not elected,” Harper explained. “They don’t have to retire until age 75, and may warm their seats for as long as 45 years. By the nature of the system, they’re not accountable to voters. So it’s a rare pleasure for me to be among Senators who are actually elected by the people they represent.”

“The mandate to govern,” he concluded, “when it is given to you directly by the people, is a great honour and a great responsibility. It’s the very essence of responsible government, and it is the minimum condition of 21st century democracy. Australia’s Senate shows how a reformed Upper House can function in our parliamentary system and Canadians understand that our Senate, as it stands today, must either change or, like the old Upper Houses of our provinces, vanish.”

And while some individuals are falling all over themselves to denounce Harper for musing about abolishing the Senate – and let’s keep in mind that one well-qualified line of one speech certainly doesn’t comprise a commitment to Senate abolition in any way, shape or form – what they really want is to draw attention away from the fact that Harper and the Conservative party are absolutely, 100% right about Senate reform.

That is, that if the Senate cannot be reformed, it must be abolished.

There are even those who, predictably, want to portray this particular line as threatening – as a sign of autocratic tendencies.

Unsurprisingly, these people have resorted to their typical needle-in-haystack searches, resorting to their time-honoured tactic of focusing on minutiae in order to invent a fictional set of Conservative party policies that never existed.

Yet many of them have been conveniently silent about the NDP’s opposition to any form of Senate reform – they favour outright abolition as their option of first choice. And while that certainly says something about the nature of the NDP (perhaps they’re the ones who really have a hidden agenda), it says even more about those who are currently trying to raise a stink regarding Stephen Harper flirting with abolition as an option of last resort.

Apparently, abolishing the Senate is a perfectly palatable idea so long as it’s “Jack Layton and the NDP” who are proposing it, but becomes immediately intolerable the instant that Stephen Harper utters a single word about it.

This isn’t to say that abolishing the Senate is a good idea. But the valuable role that the Senate can fill in Canadian society (and arguably hasn’t throughout at least the past 30 years) only underscores the need for real Senate reform.

This shouldn’t be confused with Louis St. Laurent’s idea of Senate reform, which was to replace retiring Conservative senators exclusively with “good Liberals”. But it’s in consideration of historical stances like Laurent’s that one begins to wonder why it is that the very concept of Senate reform seems so threatening to Liberals.

Then again, as the predominant hegemonic party of modern Canadian political history, the Liberal party has certainly found itself a fun toy in the Canadian Senate, and they certainly don’t seem prepared to give it up. Even when they pay lip service to the idea of Senate reform (as does Stephane Dion), one also has to remember that they oppose any form of Senate reform that would upset the not-so-delicate balance of Liberal hegemony over the upper house.

Abolition is the only tenable alternative to permanent Liberal hegemony over Canadian politics via the Senate. The sheer effort exerted by the Liberals in holding the government hostage in recent months only underscores this.

It’s for this reason alone that Stephane Dion needs to stop simply saying he’s in favour of senate reform – he needs to back up his words, and get behind it. Even if he doesn’t want to support the current proposals on the table – although they’re perfectly reasonable, and will take the Senate light-years toward becoming an actual democratic body – then perhaps he should act like a leader of the Opposition, and formulate his own set of proposals (the goal of the opposition, of course, being to present itself as a viable alternative government).

Yet Stephane Dion and his supporters seem all to consent to live in glass houses and throw stones. When Harper suggests that the Senate should be abolished if it can’t be reformed, they insist it’s because he’s despotic and abhors any kind of opposition, if not an outright sense that they are entitled to permanently govern, even while in opposition.

Whereas the Liberal insistence that the Liberal-dominated Senate is just fine the way it is (quelle suprise!) seems actually despotic, and borne of a sense of contempt regarding the opposition.

This, when one considers that a recent poll has revealled that 79% of polled Canadians were in favour of electing senators, seems all the more out of pace with Canada’s current political realities.

One also has to keep in mind that 12 citizen’s forums held across Canada has noted that Canadians are not in form of senate abolition. In fact, many citizens participating in the forums remarked on the value of the Senate as “checks and balances” on the power of parliament.

Yet in recent years, the Senate has not acted as a check or a balance on parliament when it mattered (as with the implementation of the National Energy Program, or the establishment of arbitrary moritariums on tainted blood claims), and has only tried to be so when it didn’t matter (as with the recent federal budget).

The case is clear: the Senate has not acted as it should, and not only is a reformed Senate necessary, but the Canadian people support it.

If the Liberal party won’t recognize the political will of the Canadian people, perhaps it’s time to take their toy away from them for good.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Patrick. In fact, it inspired me to write today about exactly what kind of reforms are needed, and how to connect the dots to get from the Senate we have to the Senate we deserve. This wasn't what I'd intended to do, but once I read this piece of yours I couldn't stop until I'd poured it all out.



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