Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Liberal Party Position On Term Limits Not Altogether Unreasonable

Longer term limits not a bad idea

With speculation regarding Stephen Harper's five upcoming Senate appointments still rife, it was only a matter of time until speculation regarding a Senate reform package began.

According to The Hill Times the Conservative Party is planning to introduce a Senate reform package that will feature elected Senators and term limits.

Liberal Democratic Reform Critic Marlene Jennings explains that while her party opposes eight-year term limits, as outlined in previous Conservative legislation, they would support a longer 12-year term limit.

Further elaborating on the Liberal objection to the legislation, Jennings notes that a Prime Minister serving two or more full-year terms could potentially end up appointing every Senator in the chamber.

There's nothing at all unreasonable about objections to that.

Jennifer Smith, a political scientist at Dalhousie University, offers some objections that are far from reasonable. In fact, many of them are just plain silly.

In particular, Smith seems to object to the notion of elected Senators.

"It violates the spirit of the Constitution because clearly the understanding is the Prime Minister will appoint whomever is elected," Smith insisted. "That would compromise the power of the Crown to appoint whomever it wishes to the Senate, subject to the specifications outlined in the constitution itself. That's what the constitutional issue hinges on as far as I'm concerned."

But Smith seems to be pretending that constitutional convention hasn't changed this already.

In the most formal sense, the Prime Minister doesn't even make Senate appointments. On a constitutional basis, the Crown, as represented by the Governor General, makes the actual appointments. Canada's independence from the British Empire and the reduction of the Governor General from an office of Royal oversight to a largely ceremonial office has instead empowered the Prime Minister to make the actual selections for the Senate.

Simply put, the Crown cannot appoint anyone it wishes to the Senate -- consitutional convention prevents it.

Smith also seems to be confused about the Senate's role in terms of policymaking.

"Certainly an elected Upper House is going to give you some regional representation, there's no doubt about that, but I'm very doubtful that it's going to give you sober second thought because sober second thought is something a second House does, vis à vis what comes to it from the first," Smith continued. "Sober second thought is not what people who run in big provincial wide elections want to engage in, they think they're more important than that. They want to engage in policymaking, not in reviewing what other policymakers have proposed."

Of course, the Senate actually does engage in policymaking. The constitution allows Senators to intitiate legislation in the upper chamber. The primary exception is that Senators may not attempt to legislate on fiscal matters.

Moreover, Senators can amend non-fiscal legislation and send it back to the House of Commons.

Jennifer Smith seems to be confused about the specific policymaking powers of the Senate.

Marlene Jennings, meanwhile, can't seem to resist the urge to finish her thoughts to the Hill Times on a disingenuous note.

"[Senate reform] needs a substantive and honest debate, and that's not what we're getting from the Conservatives." she concluded.

The problem with this, of course, is that the Liberal Party, particularly under Stephane Dion, argued that the purusing Senate reform on a piecemeal basis risked introducing unintended consequences into the matter, and that broad reform would be preferable.

Dion never seemed to want to admit that this was a silly argument -- that the unintended consequences of broad reform would be broad in scope, and the unintended consequences of incremental reform would be narrower in scope, and easier to correct.

The Liberal Party position on term limits is actually very reasonable. But that doesn't mean that their contributions to the Senate reform debate have been substantive or honest. More often that not, they've been precisely the opposite.

Other bloggers writing about this topic:

Hatrock's Cave - "Solberg on Prorogue and the Senate"

Stageleft - "A Waste of Parliamentary Time and Taxpayer Money"

Harper Bizarro - "Caution: Tories Appearing to Work"

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