"A Citizen"s Eye View"

Sunday, May 13, 2012

The Illusion of a Democratic Senate

A central plank in Stephen Harper's election platform in previous federal run-offs, has involved Senate Reform. This is a notion that he has played lip-service to with the introduction of Senate reform legislation that would see each province nominate elected Senatorial candidates to the Prime Minister every time a seat representing that region becomes vacant in the Upper House. The Power of course, would still remain with the Prime Minister. He could choose to appoint a nominated Senator... or not. And his appointment of no less than 48 Conservative Cronies, mostly like minded, defeated election candidates to the Red Chamber is an indication that Harper has no interest in relinquishing his strangle-hold on the Senate and that his legislation, like his current government, offers only the illusion of democracy.  Thus far, the only province that has offered elected Senatorial candidates is Harper's home province of Alberta. But with the appointments of elected Senatorial Candidates such as Bert Brown and Stanley Waters, both of whom are ex-Reformists,it was pretty easy for Harper, also an ex-Reformist, to rubber stamp their appointments while still  pretending the process was democratic.   

The problem is, the Supreme Court of Canada declared in 1980 that Parliament does not have the constitutional right to, in any way, alter the "characteristics of the Senate" with out the Provinces. This of course, would open up a new round of constitutional wranglings. Since Harper is not known to be a consensus builder and is not prone to consulting the Provinces on much of anything, this is not likely to happen. Thus far, the Province of Quebec is the only region to issue a constitutional challenge to the proposed legislation. Not that it would in anyway, put the brakes on Harper's agenda as he has little regard for the Supreme Court of Canada. 

Now the notion of a "Triple E" Senate (an acronym for Equal, Elected and Effective) has been bandied about for years. A great notion on the surface of it. I mean, who wouldn't want a democratically elected legislative body representing them..... kind of like what our House of Commons is already supposed to be. So then why on earth would we need TWO such legislative bodies? What would their relationship be? Which one would hold trump over the other? Which one is the TRUE voice of the people? We have to look no farther than our immediate neighbors to the south to see that  this kind of system enables nothing but stagnation and ineffective government. As is happening here in Canada at break-neck speed, we  are witnessing real power in the States shifting from the duly elected officials to the cadre of non-elected strategists, (such as we currently see with our PMO), in addition to well financed lobby groups. 

The intent of the Canadian Senate when it was first formed, was to act as a brake on rampant partisan politics in the Lower House, to provide a "House of Sober Second Thought". While the Senate, since it's inception, has rarely been completely free of partisan politics- Senate seats being regarded as plumb positions for former cabinet ministers, ex-Premiers and political cronies- it has in practice, seldom interfered in the passing of bills put to it by the duly elected Lower House. It would debate a bill, offer criticisms,  recommend said bills to committee and on very rare occasion, delay the passage of a bill it deemed unworthy,  but it would ultimately, never overturn legislation passed through the House of Commons...until now. 

Senator Bert Brown of Alberta with Stephen Harper
Yup, this was a real non-partisan selection.
From 2006 to 2011, while he held successive minority governments, Stephen Harper, counter to his Senate Reform election promises, took sole control of the Senate, showing cronyism and partisanship to a degree never before seen with appointments to the Upper House. In so doing, he took control of the country's legislative process. He used his Senate majority to defeat opposition bills passed through the House of Commons and to ensure bills he supported in the Lower House, survived the scrutiny of the Red Chamber. Now of course, Harper has his fraudulently won majority Government in the House of commons so control of the Senate isn't quite as critical. But because of his desire to quickly cram through massive legislative bills that would drastically alter our country before he is finally voted out of office by Canadians, sickened by the stench of his corrupt regime, he still needs the backing of the Senate in order to ensure a speedy passage of his agenda. 

So it sounded real nice, what Harper said about Senate Reform while on the campaign trail. He has even taken a few half-hearted swipes at the venerable Upper House.  But much like anything else Harper says, what he actually does is completely different (with the exception of his promise of not knowing Canada by the time he's done changing it). Any attempts at reforming the "basic characteristics" of the Senate are unconstitutional if done unilaterally. The Quebec challenge could well prove this true. The constitutionality then, of those so-called "elected" Senators from Alberta could be challenged. Even the eight year "terms" all Harper Senators agreed to after 2008 could be challenged. Look for Senators themselves to open this debate up once Harper buys the farm in 2015. 

Now don't get me wrong. I most certainly feel that, like our election process, our Senate needs to be overhauled. The idea of there being a genuine "House of Sober Second Thought" is not a bad one- that there is a body of learned and scholarly folk somewhere about who can look at a piece of legislation passed through Parliament, separate out the wheat from the chaff and if necessary, send it back to Parliament for further discussion, on to committee for review or simply rubber-stamp it as is.  But to do this effectively (the third "E" in Triple-E Senate) it needs to be free of any and all partisan allegiances. Thus, Senators should not be members of ANY political party despite previous affiliations. Nor should they have the ability to veto anything passed through the Lower House. In my humble opinion, I would rather see Political Professors, Economists, Judges, Artists and Scientists sitting in the Red Chamber rather than defeated election candidates and former football players. People who are learned and can make intelligent, even handed recommendations to the folks in the House of Commons. These people would be the "fine tuners"- in baseball parlance, the "closers", the ones who bring the game to a successful conclusion. They should in no way be confused with the "Voice of the People" that The House of Commons should be, but more of a non-partisan advisory body.  But again, this would significantly change the selection process and thus, require a new round of Constitutional negotiations with the provinces. So don't look for this to happen any time soon. 

But in the mean time, we have to live with a Senate that is about as credible as our current fraudulent Government. They both suffer from the Harper "Smoke and Mirrors" treatment. 

"And now, for my next trick...."