Friday, May 28, 2010

Extreme Agendas = Favouring Abolition of the Senate

BQ, NDP both favour abolishing Senate

Speaking at a recent panel discussion on the topic of Senate Reform, Bloc Quebecois MP Nicole Demers, NDP MP David Christopherson, Liberal Senator James Cowan and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal all discussed the topic of Senate reform.

Two of those individuals -- Demers and Christopherson -- weren't interesting in talking about Senate reform at all. Rather, they were more interested in talking about Senate abolition.

"My party is against senate reform, my party is for the abolition of the senate," Demers insisted. "There is no way the senate can be reformed unless you reopen the constitution and to do that, you need the goodwill of 10 provinces. We know you won't get the goodwill of 10 provinces so it just makes no sense."

Demers knows full well that if she had her way, no consitutional talks could attract the good will of Quebec.

Pierre Trudeau learned the hard way about the folly of attempting to have good faith constitutional discussions with a separatist. Rene Levesque learned the hard way that wasn't going to fly indefinitely.

Christopherson echoed Demers preference for abolition.

"It's a holdback from another era and its time to eliminate it," he added. "The government is bringing in legislation that's just nibbling at the edges and is probably going to do more harm than good."

He insisted that piecemeal Senate reform would make the ill effects of Senate reform entrenched.

It actually wouldn't. Rather, if particular Senate reform bills really did more harm than good, Parliament would be able to repeal the legislation. Unlike a constitutional amendment -- the repeal of which would require another constitutional amendment.

Funny how that escaped Christopherson's notice.

But, then again, it should be no surprise that parties with extreme ideological agendas would oppose a house of sober, second thought that would derail their agendas.

For the Bloc Quebecois, abolishing the Senate means there would be one less house of government that would have to approve of any negotiated agreement on Quebec separation, should they ever manage to win a referendum.

(The odds continue to remain against it.)

For the NDP, the Senate would merely be another source of opposition to a far-left waffle-driven hidden agenda. It would make it remarkably easy for minority governments -- which the NDP would certainly have to settle for, if it ever managed to govern federally at all -- to hammer their legislation through a weak opposition, should such a government be so fortunate.

Cowan made his objection to senate reform a little more transparent. He argues that legislative means of Senate reform are unconstitutional.

"It can't be done by act of parliament because we have the constitution and you can't change it without consent from the provinces," he insisted. "We know Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia ... are not in favour of an elected senate and they are ambivalent about the proposal for a limited term."

But clearly Cowan has misunderstood the nature of Canada's Constitution. Canada's Constitution is a British-style Constitution with written and unwritten elements -- and that the written elements of Canada's Constitution are not limited to the British North America Act.

(For example, many Canadians don't know that the Magna Carta is part of the written body of work that makes up Canada's Constitution.)

Segal hit paydirt on this particular detail when he noted the number of public institutions that aren't covered by the Constitution at all.

"Many of the things we have in our system, cabinet ministers, political parties, they aren't mentioned in the constitution," Segal explained. In fact, some of the basic parts of Canada's political institutions -- like the office of Prime Minister -- aren't mentioned in the Constitution.

Rather, many of these things have come about as Constitutional convention -- part of the unwritten element of Canada's Constitution.

In fact, the current Senator selection process -- under which both Cowan and Segal were appointed -- is a matter of convention. Under the Constitution, Senators are to be appointed by the Governor General, acting on behalf of the Queen.

At a purely ceremonial level, this continues to be the case. But constitional convention has since defined the right of selection to belong to the Prime Minister.

That convention could be expanded to require that the Prime Minister appoint Senators chosen by their constituents via an election.

Canadian democracy is badly in need of Senate reform. Although individuals like James Cowan may insist on standing in the way, it remains the only means of ensuring that parties with extreme agendas don't manage to seize control of the country.

Abolishing the Senate would make the advancement of such single-minded extreme agendas easier. It's one of the best reasons why anyone who favours abolishing the Senate should be viewed with suspicion.

1 comment:

  1. I agree with you that, in practice, most of the advocates of Senate abolition have their own ulterior and often collectivist motives. I believe you are also correct when you state that, in the absence of a Senate, it would be far more simple to advance "single-minded extreme agendas".

    However, it is not the absence of a Senate that would facilitate such extremism, but the Canadian government apparatus currently in place. Clearly, the first-past-the-post electoral system makes legislative extremism (of either the left or the right) much easier to accomplish. Indeed, in recent years, it has only been the fractured state of Canadian public opinion (leading to wall-to-wall minority governments) that has saved us from such extremism from the Harper Conservatives. And even with a minority government, the Harperites have been (to put the kindest spin on it) fairly divisive in their governing style.

    Those advocating Senate abolition would do well to advocate it as part of a package of other electoral reforms, not only proportional representation but also "straight-jacket" political reforms such as term limits; recall; referenda and plebiscites; and so forth. The list could on ad infinitum. Suffice it to say, if any reforms not presently on this list would have the effect of restricting the power of politicians, it is an odds-on favourite I would add it to my personal list.

    Of course, as part of my own "extremist" agenda, I would go one step further and advocate the abolition of not only the Senate, but also the House of Commons, the Office of the Governor General, the Cabinet, the Office of the Prime Minister . . . and by all means, do not stop in the pursuit of such "reforms" until the lot of thieves and extortionists in Ottawa are either on the street or in jail . . . .


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