Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Harper Taking a Huge Risk

Submitting Senate issue to referendum could have disastrous results

When one plays with fire, they'll inevitably get burned.

This is a simple piece of wisdom, handed down for generations since the discovery of fire, but a piece of simple wisdom that is all too often disregarded.

It always seems like absolute common sense once wildfires are incinerating portions of California, yet there all too often seems to be some child, some where, playing with matches, who simply ought to know better.

With his recent proposal that the government hold a referendum on whether or not to abolish the Senate, NDP leader Jack Layton appears content to play the role of such a child. However, few expected Stephen Harper to be quite so eager to join him.

According to CTV, the Conservative government may back Layton's proposal, which may be tabeled as early as Tuesday. With combined Conservative and NDP support, the bill would pass, leaving the fate of a referendum in the hands of the Senate.

Which is certainly a wily political move. Conservative Senator Hugh Segal was first to propose such a referendum.

"We've had 17 efforts at reforming the Senate since 1900," Segal announced. "All of them have failed."

"The legitimacy of the place is under attack on a pretty regular basis."

Segal makes a strong point. Layton, to a certain extent, echoes it when he describes the Senate as undemocratic and (at least in its current form) obselete. However, referendums can be very dangerous things, and applying a referendum to the Senate may be even more so.

First off, referendums apply the mood of the day to the issue, and potentially in absolute and permanent terms. For example, some political scientists attribute the failure of the Charlottetown Accords (decided via referendum) at least partially to the poor economic conditions of the time. In the view of Harold Clarke, Allan Kornberg and Peter Wearing, Anger toward Brian Mulroney's government over percieved economic mismanagement manifested itself in a public rejection of his government's political centrepiece.

The danger in regards to the Senate intensifies once one considers putting the matter to an yes-or-no, tumbs-up-thumbs-down vote. Not only would such a vote unduly endanger Canada's house of sober second thought, any vote tabulated under these conditions would ignore the variety of public opinion in regards to what to do about the Canadian Senate.

If Stephen Harper wants to join Jack Layton in throwing political caution (as well as some lit embers) to the wind, he'd better be prepared for the consequences. Harper's recent proclivity for politically savvy chess moves aside, this is one that could burn his Senate Reform agenda beyond any and all recognition.

Which, of course, is the risk one takes when playing with matches.

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