25 April 2014

Don't give up on the Senate, Mr. Harper

It wouldn't be surprising if Prime Minister Harper was in a bit of a funk over the Supreme Court's decision on the Senate this week. The Court unanimously rejected his government’s attempt to transform the Senate into an elected body and to set term limits, saying that such basic changes require the consent of at least seven provinces and half of Canadians. For Mr. Harper, this was fifth straight defeat at the hands of the Court in the past month, all on substantial issues.

“We’re essentially stuck with the status quo for the time being," said the PM, "It’s a decision that I’m disappointed with [and] that a vast majority of Canadians will be very disappointed with.” I don't really know if a vast majority of Canadians are very disappointed, but we are not stuck with the status quo.

Meaningful changes can be made without resorting to constitutional amendments. For example, I recently blogged about setting the Senate up as a citizens' assembly. Political scientist Peter Russell, an authority on the Senate and the Supreme Court, suggests that the government and the opposition parties collaborate on a non-partisan method of selecting senators. These approaches would remove the Senate's most offensive attribute—its use as a repository for faithful servants of the party in power. This alone would greatly enhance its legitimacy and usefulness.

Even the constitutional route should not be abandoned. Democracy is simply too important to leave this expensive and corrupted institution in its present state. If the government established a committee of provincial representatives mandated for one task and one task only—a referendum question on Senate reform—with a strong chairman to keep it strictly on track, it just might be able to come up with an appropriate question to present to the people. It is worth at least a try.

So cheer up, Mr. Harper, and look on the bright side: you have another reason to blame the judiciary for the country's problems. Enjoy that at least while getting on with the job of dealing with one of the major weaknesses in our political system.

1 comment:

  1. Bill: do you seriously believe that Harper really wanted to reform the Senate?

    I would argue that if he had seriously wanted to reform the Senate, he would have asked the SCC in 2006 when he first came to power. Instead, he had left it till Dec. 2012 after the Duffy affair had blown up.

    Consider two other things: (a) the opposition had been urging him to submit those questions to the SCC for many, many years, and (b) Duffy had suggested that Harper had wanted to exploit the situation to inflame the passions of the public against the Senate.

    Harper had been railing against the Senate during his opposition days. There was even more urgency to ask the SCC to clarify what he could do when he had a minority government and could have been prevented to do so if he had lost power.

    No siree, I think it was all show and like previous PMs, he had wanted to use the Senate to reward his friends, supporters, party bagmen and failed candidates.