"A Citizen"s Eye View"

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Senate Reform: Thinking Outside the Box

"Duffy-Gate". A useful crisis
Well, Stephen Harper has his "useful crisis" in his alleged ongoing quest for Senate reform. Ironically, it comes as a result of misdeeds perpetrated by his own appointees. Kind of makes you wonder at the "coincidence" of the whole affair. 

So now his Harperness, buoyed by this crisis and aided by his Strausiann lick-spittle, Pierre (Skippy) Poilievre, is hell-bent on unilaterally imposing change on the Upper House. 

Of course, Harper wants to do things unilaterally because he lacks the ability to negotiate as illustrated by all those "successful" free trade deals and pipe lines he's negotiated. Changing the Senate in any way, shape or form is supposed to be a constitutional affair requiring participation of the provinces. But of course, Stephen has never once sat down at a table with all the Premiers. 

Harper is not a consensus builder. He seems to lack that ability. Unless the deck is heavily stacked in his favour and his opponents are sufficiently restricted in their ability to challenge his will, he doesn't enter into the game. Hence his desire to change the Red Chamber his way. 

Of course, the PM doesn't want the Senate abolished out right as the
NDP advocate. Once he sufficiently had it stacked in his favour during his minority governments, it was extremely useful to him as illustrated by the Upper House outright killing an NDP environment bill. So even if he didn't have a majority in the House of Commons, he could still control the game by keeping the Red Chamber under his thumb.

But is Stephen really pushing for any kind of real substantive change? He wants fixed terms and elected Senators. All fixed terms does is make it easier for successive governments to change the balance of power in the Senate. On the surface of it, this may sound like a good thing. But if Steve didn't think it would in some way benefit him, he wouldn't be going there. 

And elected Senators. While this too may sound like a noble idea, it has the potential to produce legislative gridlock as one elected body vies with another for supremacy and for the bragging rights as to who is the true "voice" of the people. For more thoughts on the notion of an elected Senate, click here. 

Unlike the NDP, I am all for retaining the Senate and reforming it. You see, I believe that a right and true house of "sober second thought" is a good thing - a body that could put the brakes on when Parliament becomes nothing more than a rampant house of partisan ideology, devoid of any real political debate and rational decision making - much as it is now. This was no where better demonstrated then the recent decision by the Senate to kick Harper's Union Transparency bill (and make no mistake about it. It might have been presented as a private member's bill, but this was Harper's baby) back to the House of Commons. You see, it's the Senate's job, when they get ill conceived legislation such as the Union bill, to either send it on to committee for further study and/or to kick it back to Parliament to rethink. It's a matter of providing checks and balances which is not such a bad thing when we have such a closed minded, power-tripping majority Government as we have today. 

But do fixed terms and elections go far enough to change the real problem with the Senate? Not by half. Like most of Harper's so-called democratic reforms, these are nothing more than cosmetic changes -  window dressing that might look good and give him something to hang his hat on - a quasi-legacy that his current seven year tenure is completely devoid of. But these reforms do nothing to change the functionality of the Red Chamber. It doesn't change how they operate. And if future senators are elected Stephen's reforms do nothing but provide the promise that the he will honour the elected Senatorial Candidates in each region. There is nothing to hold him to that promise and we all know how credible Steve's word is. 
A Pack of Partisan Monkeys

But regardless of how these Senator's are chosen, if they perform no better than a pack of partisan monkeys when they get there, taking their cues from and owing allegiance to their respective political party's, then nothing is going to change. The Senate will remain a useless appendage. 

So this is where the whole "thinking outside the box" thing comes in. If we're going to talk real Senate reform and we want to talk about it being a true House of "Sober Second Thought", then lets think big. Lets change the paradigm. 

First of all, let's talk about Senators being members of the same political parties that infest the lower house (more on my opinion of political parties here). If we expect our Senators to be completely free of the political rhetoric of the Lower House, then they need to be free of those parties. So in my opinion, Senators, regardless of their previous incarnations, should be made to relinquish any and all party affiliations when being sworn in. They should be first and foremost, servants of the citizens of Canada, not extensions of the House of Commons, party ideology or the PMO. 

So then like the Auditor General is and the PBO should be the Red Chamber should be a completely arm's length non-partisan legislative body that is 100% independent of the Lower House. It should be, as it was with the recent Union bill, the sober body that looks at legislation and either recommends changes, passes it back to the House of Commons or rubber stamps the bill. Therefore the Prime Minister should have nothing whatsoever to do with the appointment of the Senator's, elected or otherwise. 

I would incidentally, completely remove the power of veto from the Senate unless a proposed piece of legislation is found to be unconstitutional. Even then, I would recommend that rather than being able to veto said bill, the Senate would be compelled to return it to the Lower House for more thorough scrutiny. But with the Senate being an independent "thoughtful" body, legislation from the Lower House would do well to be more thoughtful as well - legislation they submit should be better discussed and debated rather than having "closure" imposed on it thus ensuring half-assed bills aren't kicked upstairs and that gargantuan omnibus legislation isn't crammed into law without proper scrutiny. 

So then lets look at where Senators would in fact come from if not from the Prime Minister himself. Why not from the Governor General? Our Head of State, who would have the power to enable an independent selections committee who would in turn make recommendations back to the GG rather than to the PM.  In this way, appointees to the Upper House would have absolutely nothing to do with the Prime Minister nor Parliament and aren't faced with the prospect of owing the government of the day for their position. 
Senator "Mom". Hey! Why Not?

And just who would these future Senator's be? Well I would recommend Canadians from all walks of life. Professor's, political scientists, Doctors, lawyers, teachers, farmers, mothers, former aboriginal leaders, volunteers: all people who have performed service to their communities, their Provinces and to the country itself. Almost anyone but former politicians. 

I'm sure there are plenty of arguments for and against my ideas for Senate reform as I've presented them. But they are not intended to be the last word on reforming the Upper House. But what I hope my ideas will do is to stimulate thought and to provoke discussion. To get Canadians thinking about what the real problems are with the Senate and why they exist. My solutions may not be the best ones, but by stepping outside the box in search of remedies, by shifting the paradigm, we can maybe start thinking about and imagining what our democracy can be. Maybe we can start a revolution of electoral and democratic reform that will ensure that we will never again be plagued with destructive autocratic governance and that together, we can eventually make Canada's democracy the envy of the world. Is that too much to hope for?

Doesn't Canada Deserve Better than This?