Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Senate: Abolishin or Reform

At the time of Confederation there was a fear among many politicians that the 'rubble rousers' would not choose wisely the path the government should take. An aristocratic elite body of government was needed to review all legislation to prevent society from the dangers of poor legislation. The Senate was created to suit this purpose.

Over time the power of democracy prevailed. Those not engaged enough in the political process to make an educated decision tend not to vote. The Senate became a rubber stamp for parliament. They would occasionally send amended bills back to the legislature but they would eventually make it through. The Senate's main power of delay provide a defence against an outgoing government from trying to establish a long term legacy shortly before facing the electorate and possible defeat. The Senate was generally not used as a tool to stop the will of parliament in it's tracks. When a Liberal dominated Senate blocked the GST, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney went to the Queen to appoint 8 more senators. The Liberals tried their hardest to filibuster the new tax but it eventually passed.

Discontent for the Senate has grown. It became place for political Cronies to be rewarded literally until they died (until mandatory retirement at 75 was implemented in 1965). At one point attendance was so low in the Senate that it was proposed paying them a bonus each day they showed up to work. The Senate plays a minor role in the political process. The provinces have demonstrated their ability to function without an upper house.

In the last session of parliament the Senate held up two key pieces of government legislation. Reforming the Senate and the crime bill (most notably raising the age of sexual consent to 16) were held up in the Senate for more than a year. The Senate has proclaimed protecting the Constitution for holding up the reform bill. The irregular techniques they have used for delay, give the appearance of self protection instead of benefiting Canadians.

Today the government reintroduced their bills for Senate reform. One declares all newly appointed senators can serve a maximum of one 8 year term. The other creates a system where provinces would be consulted for their preference through voting to who should fill Senate vacancies. More Senators than necessary would be elected limiting the frequency that elections would need to be held. Senators would be chosen based on a single transferable ballot. Fundraising limits would be in place but their would be no spending limits or reimbursement. Open consultations with all opposition parties will be welcomed in order to create some level of cross party support. If the support crosses party lines, a hold up in the Senate will place the blame squarely on the shoulders of Stephane Dion.

If these reforms get held up in the Senate again the Conservatives have promised to support a NDP motion calling on a referendum to abolish the Senate. Such a motion would never receive the necessary approval from the Senate. Stephane Dion would be held accountable for having his Senators defy the will of parliament.

Limiting the term a senator can serve, limits the reach a previous government has on future legislation. Without an elected senate this makes the problem the Conservatives are now facing worse. The previous Liberal government were in power for 13 years. When a similar scenario happens in the future an outgoing government could literally cripple a new governments ability to govern as they were elected to do.

Electing senators creates it's own set of problems. The current bill is a clever way to get around constitutional requirements. Not entrenching these changes in the constitution allows them to be easily undone. As representation in the Senate is already regionally based the balance of power is going to be different than in the house of commons. A mechanism will need to be established to deal with situation where there is a stalemate between parliament and the senate. One of the great benefits of the parliamentary system is the ability to have legislation passed in a relatively timely manner. It would be a tragedy if in order to 'improve' our government would result in legislation being grounded to a halt.

The Senate is a relic based on a model that no longer fits into our 21st century democracy. Any changes must be carefully considered so that the system is improved, instead of bringing about change for change sake.

1 comment:

Canadian said...

The Senate reform bill was held up because the Senate wanted the government to refer it to the SCC to see if it was constitutional - as per the request of several provinces who argue that the federal government cannot make any changes to the Senate without consulting them. It's a fair point. That's the Senate's job. They weren't holding it up just to piss off the Cons. Electing senators without also modifying the powers of the senate will only create serious problems since the senate has the same virtually the same powers as the House of Commons. Harper's approach is either idiotic or naive. I'm not certain which yet - either he doesn't understand how our system works, or he just doesn't give a damn.