Friday, September 08, 2006

Upper hand on the Upper House

I read this morning in The Globe and Mail that Prime Minister Harper is planning to float legislation in Parliament this fall that will enable Canadians to elect their senators. We've been talking about this for decades now, but it always came as part of a "triple-E" package — elected, equal, and effective — that guaranteed it had no wings. Now the PM is suggesting just one of those planks: election (possibly two, but he has no control over how "effective" the joint is or isn't)...

OTTAWA -- Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised yesterday to introduce a bill in the fall allowing Canadians to select representatives to the Senate during provincial or federal elections.

Mr. Harper was the first sitting prime minister to appear before a Senate committee. The hearing, which was sought by him, was mostly cordial.

But the Prime Minister added a stiff warning to the Liberal majority in the Red Chamber, saying the defeat of his step-by-step approach to Senate reform would have "political consequences," including the possibility of an early election.

Liberal Senator Jim Munson said the comment suggested the Conservative Party would like "nothing better than to fight an election on the backs of the Senate."

Mr. Harper's response was curt. "Well, don't give me the opportunity," he said.

...If the Senate kills the proposal, he said, it will create a perception that senators don't want to reform their institution. Given that the status quo is unacceptable to Canadians, he said, the last alternative -- a major constitutional overhaul -- could be fatal for the Senate.

..."Eight years [for term limits] seems to make sense . . . but not so much sense if nothing else changes," said the Liberal Leader in the Senate, Dan Hays. "It begs the question of 'what else?' This is a step towards where, or what further change?"

Currently, senators can sit until the age of 75. In addition to imposing term limits, Mr. Harper said he will introduce legislation in the fall to create an electoral process to select future senators, who would continue representing specific provinces in Ottawa.

...Mr. Harper said he will not seek a constitutional amendment as part of the overhaul, saying he prefers an "interim step in the democratization" of the Senate.

...While the Conservative proposals are aimed at creating an elected and more effective Senate, Mr. Harper did not make any promise on the last element of what has been called the Triple-E Senate, namely the equality of provincial representation. Currently, provinces such as Alberta and British Columbia each have six seats, while provinces with smaller populations, such as New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, each have 10.

Mr. Harper said he will not move immediately on that issue, explaining he does not wish to propose constitutional amendments that are not supported by the veto-wielding provinces.

(I'm not sure what he means by "veto-wielding", unless he means that Ontario and Quebec might both withhold consent to an amendment; since between them they have more than 50% of the population of Canada, effectively, they have a "veto" if they both act against an amendment.)

I have to say, I think this is little short of brilliant on Harper's part. It's hard to see how he can lose. He's right; if the Senate blocks this, people will be in a mood to punish them. It doesn't require a constitutional amendment, since all it does is let the people endorse a candidate that the PM will then appoint to the Senate... how that selection is made or who puts the bug in the PM's ear is not a matter touched on by the Constitution. It gives Alberta something it wants — an elected Senate — but doesn't immediately equalize the number... something I'm sure Quebec would get huffy about. Meanwhile, it looks like something's being done that will put us on the road to an equal Senate, without it being so direct a course that Quebec gets its back up, but positions it as a likely inevitability that Quebec just might grow to accept, however grudgingly. It deftly sidesteps all the obstacles. I really have to hand it to Harper. It's wishy-washy as hell, it gives nobody all they want and still pleases some and protects others. It changes almost nothing, but it opens the door to great change. Someday. Maybe.

My God... it's such a Canadian solution.

1 comment:

Masnick96 said...

It's such a Canadian solution.

I loved that phrase. I worry though that Harper is trying to shape this in his own image. While I think that Sentors should be elected there needs to be more discussion and though on it. Making sure that provinces are represented fairly (weather population-wise or another manner), making sure it's based on proportional representation, etc.

It'll be defintely interesting.