Thursday, June 16, 2011

Shall They or Shant They?

Source: CTV News: Senate Reform Ruffles Some Conservative Feathers

Well, there's a lot to talk about. We could sit here and discuss the Conservatives' quick action on legislating Canada Post back to work. We could talk about Libya and Canada's expanding role with NATO in the region. We could even talk about Jack Layton humbly moving into Stornoway...

But what we will talk about is an issue that has been brought up since the Conservatives were first elected: Senate Reform.

The issue of Senate Reform has been a hot button issue since the re-elected Conservative Majority was quick to place Larry Craig and Fabien Manning back into the Senate after they had made runs to become Members of the House of Commons but were defeated in the election. Harper also appointed a former Quebec Tory to the upper chamber as well, in the wake of the NDP sweep in the province.

Some pundits suggested that Harper was attempting to invoke anger in Canadians through these appointments by urging Canadians to push for Senate reform, in an attempt perhaps to get provincial governments on side with the potential constitutional reform problem. But that seems to have failed, given Ontario and Quebec's opposition to Senate Reform.

Even now, Harper seems to be telling Senators that if they do not back reform he will move to abolish the Senate. This would be a move that Ontario and Quebec would support, but it's doubtful that Alberta and other provinces would support it. Why you ask?

The Senate was meant to exist as the voice of the provinces on a Federal level; a purpose which has more or less died thanks to partisanship and patronage appointments...Not that it ever fulfilled that purpose in the past when it was first created, mind you.

As such, it is supposed to give equal sway to regions of the country to support or oppose legislation that could be detrimental to their region. With the Senate abolished, provinces lose Federal representation. As such, provinces which have always felt snubbed by Ottawa will be less quick to support taking away an institution that gives them a voice on the Federal scene...Though they would be quick to reform it.

As such, Harper's supposed threat of abolishing the senate if they don't reform is a moot point, as he can't do this unilaterally and will need the support of the provinces, which he likely won't have. Furthermore, no one is sure whether or not this reform will even be adapted. Quebec has threatened to launch a court challenge to the constitutionality of the House of Commons and the Senate reforming themselves without the consent of the provinces.

Which brings us to the proposed reforms: The two that have come out is an elected senate with a nine year term limit for Senators. As opposed to appointed Senators, who serve until the age of 75.

Now, I've mentioned many times on this blog that I support Senate Reform has opposed to Senate abolishing. So, if you want my suggestions on how to reform the Senate, go back or search the blog for them because there's no point in mentioning them for a 3rd or 4th time on the blog.

What I can say is that Harper's reforms don't go far enough, and at the same time pose problems.

The problem is mostly one of politics. As mentioned, the Senate is already incredibly partisan due to the appointment process. But under an elected system, the Senate would only get worse. Allow me to attempt to explain.

The Bloc Quebecois was an oddity on the Federal level, given that it was more or less a provincial party. Direct Senate elections will likely lead to the same thing, with established parties vying for support in elections BUT could also lead to the rise of provincial local parties that could become the norm.

After all, why vote for the 'established' parties when you can vote for a provincial party that will represent your views better on the Federal level, as they answer to the people not the political machine in Ottawa.

Why this sounds like a victory for electors, it's not.

I say that because a fractured Senate dominated by regional parties would be the worst thing for Canada than the Senate we have now. This is simply due to the game of numbers:

Alberta, Ontario and Quebec combined have 54 seats in the current Senate. Every other province has a combined total of 51. That means that these three provinces would effectively decide which bills pass and which bills fail by simply supporting or opposing them.

Now, under a normal party system, this isn't a problem as the party with the most seats would be beholden to their party to support the legislation being brought forward. But if regional parties dominate the Senate, all hell breaks loose for the rest of Canada.

I say so because a triumvirate of Alberta, Ontario and Quebec would dominate the legislative agenda. Picture a Federal Budget in these conditions. Those three provinces would be able to oppose the budget if they did not feel that their province was getting a fair shake compared to others.

As such, they could simply defeat the budget by agreeing to vote it down until they were appeased. Traditionally, the Senate doesn't defeat money bills: But reforming the Senate makes them accountable, which in turn removes the tradition of why they didn't defeat money bills, so this scenario is indeed plausible.

Furthermore, the existence (though now limited one) of the Bloc Quebecois shows that regional parties could become a dominant force in federal politics provided they produce results for the province that they represent.

So, while this is all conjecture and speculation, it is worth thinking about before the Senate is reformed.

With the problems of Senate reform, especially elected Senate Reform, covered we can now talk about why Harper's attempt will end in failure.

Conservative Senators seem to be cool to the idea. Despite Senators being appointed like crazy to give the Conservatives a majority in the Senate, quite a few seem unwilling to destroy their own jobs.

After all, if you were making six figures with massive benefits, would you really tell your boss that you don't want your job anymore? I don't think anyone in the world is THAT noble, despite what they might say in public. Hell, I'll even admit that I would have serious pause about destroying my own career if I sat in the Senate...Though if the right reform was proposed, I would support it.

And now Harper is realizing the folly of his actions: He appointed a bunch of people to a plush job that they don't want to give up. I'm sure a number of his Senators will support the legislation, but there's a number who will likely find something wrong with the bill and vote it down if only to get that corrected.

In other words, it might be a continual back and forth between the House and Senate in legislative hell.

In the end, we'll see if the 'principled' people Harper appointed to the Senate to destroy it from within retain their loyalty to the Conservative Party; or to their own pocketbooks.

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