12.14.2006

senate

How do you guys feel about Harper's Senate reform bill?

The whole concept of the appointed Senate seems so odd to me. But then, Canadian Senators have little power - or traditionally they don't exercise that power - so does it matter? If Senators were elected, would they have play more of a role? Would we want that? If they were elected, wouldn't they have to campaign? That is, how would we know who we were voting for?

When a certain conservative from Alberta frequented this blog, he used to talk a lot about wanting an elected Senate - the "Triple E" Senate. Does Harper's bill bring us one step closer to that? Or is this bill useless window dressing?

After asking all these questions, I can't participate much in the answers, as this is crunch week for all my current writing assignments. But I'll be reading, so please feel free to chatter away.

18 comments:

FormerOwl said...

My position is pretty simple. The Senate works in its own way, so don't mess with it. Changing it should be a low priority of this government - Senate change is really pretty low on my list of priorities.

My thinking has also been severely affected by observing the junior Shrub, and so any action by Mr. Jr. Shrub-very-lite automatically makes me very suspicious.

Senate change requires some years of commission hearings and public discussions, and looking at how other countries do it.

By the way, when Harper's party was still known as the Reform Party, Albertans decided to have elections for a Senator. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, honoured the result and appointed Stan Watters to the Senate.

L-girl said...

Thanks, Owl.

My thinking has also been severely affected by observing the junior Shrub, and so any action by Mr. Jr. Shrub-very-lite automatically makes me very suspicious.

How is this Bush-like?

Scott M. said...

As long as Senators don't have terms (they retire at 75), we should be OK. The alarm should really be raised if they try to implement recurring elections... once this happens, Senators will want to be re-elected, and will therefore become more pandering to popular support from the party and province they are from. The result would be a massive power shift from the provinces with population to the smaller provinces (and the subsequent lack of fundemental proportional representation).

Scott M. said...

I should say that, to that end, using Elections Canada to hold these elections in a by-election type mode as specified is a massive waste of resources.

If we must do this, preferential lists should be voted on during general elections only to avoid the needless expense.

M@ said...

I think the entire proposal has to be taken with a grain of salt, because there's nothing binding in it. Even if elections are implemented, governments don't have to respect the election decision. Harper has done it this way because to make actual senate reform would require a constitutional amendment, and Harper's lack of political capital makes that a non-starter.

I find this bill annoying for a couple of reasons, though.

1. When the Senate proposed amendments to his "ethics" bill, Harper went on and on about how they were causin' troubles and making waves where they shouldn't. My question is, if Harper wants a more active senate, why does he seem to expect them to rubber-stamp his legislation?

2. Harper's first day in office, he appointed a senator -- and added him to his cabinet. Ironically, this cabinet member, who can't be questioned in parliament, oversees the department where the AdScam scandal happened. So Harper lecturing anyone about the senate is ridiculous -- he seems more than willing to use it to his political advantage. That's the thing about integrity: it makes things more difficult. Harper chose the easy way out.

I'm really with formerowl on this -- senate reform is not a major problem that we have to tackle. But Harper's changes seem pretty weak, and his penchant for playing fast and loose with his principles makes me think this is nothing more than political grandstanding that does no real harm, and might provide a slight benefit.

(You know, I'd be happy with MPs from a given province or area voting on their chosen senate appointee. That would take out the massive Elections Canada work and still have some connection between the senate appoinments and the voters. Think that'd work?)

FormerOwl said...

Sorry, I didn't mean that *this* particular action had anything Bush-like about it -- at least not that I can see. It is just that I view Harper with suspicion, and see *him* as a Bush-wannabe who would like to turn Canada in a US-direction.

Harper may be grandstanding, or thinking that an elected Senate will help him in some way. Or, to be perfectly fair, he may sincerely believe in an elected Senate.

m@ pointed out the Harperr appointment of a Senator to the Cabinet. Quite right -- Harper is not the first Prime Minister to do this -- other Prime Ministers have done it too.

Lone Primate said...

I'm not opposed in principle to the idea of the people of the provinces "electing" their senators. But I have to agree with Dion that this probably isn't the way to do it, piecemeal. More fundamental issues need to be addressed too. As he pointed out, Alberta, with over three million people, has six senators. Nova Scotia, with not quite a million people, has ten. If I were an Albertan, that would frost my buns a lot more than who gets to choose the butts for those seats.

L-girl said...

As he pointed out, Alberta, with over three million people, has six senators. Nova Scotia, with not quite a million people, has ten.

Why is that?

M@ said...

m@ pointed out the Harperr appointment of a Senator to the Cabinet. Quite right -- Harper is not the first Prime Minister to do this -- other Prime Ministers have done it too.

Very true. But those other prime ministers didn't complain about the senate as much as Harper does, nor did they run on a campaign about government accountability.

Nor did they say, during their election campaign, that to be a member of his cabinet, one will have to be elected. (interview on CBC TV (French), on January 12, 2006)

Again, my point is not that senate reform is a bad thing -- at worst it's not a very important thing. But the hypocrisy he's showing with the senate makes the move pretty laughable.

It's probable that the government won't last until the third reading of this bill anyhow.

Wrye said...

Why is that?

Ah, because like the US Senate, the Senate is intended to represent geographical regions instead of population. Note that at the time of formation, this arrangement would have been grievously unfair to Nova Scotia.

Cue Wikipedia:

Seats are assigned on a regional basis, with each region receiving 24 seats....



As a result of this arrangement, Ontario, British Columbia, and Alberta — Canada's fastest growing provinces in terms of population — are severely under-represented, while the Maritimes are greatly over-represented. For example, British Columbia, with a population of about four million, is entitled to six senators, while Nova Scotia, with a population of fewer than one million, is entitled to ten. Only Quebec has a share of Senators proportional to its share of the total population. It should be noted that many other upper-houses worldwide do not use population as a basis for membership.


Emphasis mine.

There is something truly weird about current thinking about the Senate. Because it's completely ineffective and a paper tiger, no one really cares about its inequalities. The debate seems to be either to get rid of it entirely, or to make it an actual working house. But if you make it a working house on the current model, the lopsidedness becomes institutionalized. Thus reform is necessary. but what reform, and on what model?

A typical plan floated 20 years ago was "Triple E", where the Senate was Elected, Effective and--the key bit--Equal, with each province getting 10 seats, a la the US.

This was hailed at the time in Western Canada as putting Alberta and BC (hoooray!) on an equal footing with Ontario (boo! hiss!). It was a major plank of the Reform Party, who became the core of the new Conservative party. The astute will note that:

1)Harper is a Conservative.

2)Despite the otherwise shining merits of the plan, there is no reason at all given that would explain why Ontario voters would vote for this ingenious scheme;

2)Since there is no other way in which the Provinces are comparably equal, the Maritimes are of course overrepresented here as well; leading to the subsequent development that;

3)Westerners who proposed the scheme would then go on to kindly suggest that the shiftless inhabitants of the Maritimes should rouse themselves from their unemployed drunken stupor and out of the goodness of their hearts merge to form one province, get jobs, etc, at which point said Maritimers would traditionally extend an appropriate salute and vote for anyone who wasn't a Reformer - in practice, Liberals.


So you see, in its current state, whatever its demerits, the Senate is at least harmless, and thus a kind of inertia has settled over it. Like the ugly lamp your foreign relatives gave you, (which you now use to cover unsightly stains on the national wallpaper) ignoring it is easier than the resulting national fight over getting rid of it or redecorating the whole house would be. Perhaps an Ashcroftian curtain over the upper chamber would help.

Lone Primate said...

The whole issue with the number of Senate seats had by the various provinces is complicated. It vastly overrepresents the Maritime provinces. For example, PEI, with four senators, has one senator for every 34,000 residents. At the other end of the scale, British Columbia, with six senators, has one for every 650,000 people. The average -- Canada's population divided by 105 Senate seats -- would put it at one senator per 310,000 or so. Oddly enough, that's almost exactly Quebec's representation.

Obviously similar huge disparities exist in the US system. Wyoming and California each has two senators, though their populations aren't even on the same order of magnitude. But at least California doesn't have to smart by the added insult of Wyoming having more senators than it has.

I think the real complication is, again, and as always, Quebec. The senate means nothing right now. But Quebec would be loathe to see any move towards either it having a 1/10 share (rather than a quarter), or to giving yet another federal institution real power. Since changing the composition of the Senate is one of the few aspects of the Constitution that requires the unanimous consent of all provinces, it's hard to imagine the deal we'd have to make with Quebec to get them to budge on that. It would probably be easier just to abolish the thing.

Ahhhh, but then there's Alberta...

MSS said...

Just a few semi-random thoughts from a political scientist who is not Canadian, but who follows Canada, and who does research on federal democracies.

The Canadian Senate is indeed an odd bird. It actually is more powerful than even most knowlegeable Canadians realize. But with Liberals having been in charge more often than not over many decades and with Senators having their life appointments, a "division of responsibilites" has been worked out whereby one house rarely challenges the other.

However, it is not surprising that when there is a Conservative government, and especially one led by a PM with a rather ambitious agenda (currently held in check by minority status), the Senate would come up as an issue. For a past instance, I refer everyone to the Canada-US free-trade controversy between the two houses under a very large Conservative Commons majority as a sort of exhibit A.

I think the Senate almost has to be reformed somehow, and elections will be part of the discussion. However, any serious discussion of Senate reform inevtiably brings up the powers of the chamber and, especially, the formula for determing how many seats each province gets.

An elected Senate would certainly be more assertive. And, under the current configuration of powers and provincial representation, I would have to think that's not a good thing.

In any event, I don't really take Harper's ideas here as serious Senate reform. It's a sop to his western base. Or at least that's how it looks from here.

Nonetheless, it is probably a good dicusssion to be having, because with the Liberals having declined over time, I do not think the current situation is sustainable indefinitely (for reasons articulated in the second paragraph).

L-girl said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone.

I don't know if parallels to the US Senate and population disparities apply, really. The US Senate is very powerful, much more so than the House of Reps, and, as I'm sure everyone knows, the two different systems (by state and by population) represents the great compromise. The discrepancies mentioned (eg, California vs Wyoming) are supposedly balanced out in the other chamber.

But the Canadian Senate doesn't function like the US Senate, so I don't know how we could compare them.

Anyway, I'm still reading through all the comments. I'm sure I'll have questions when I'm done! Thanks.

L-girl said...

I think it's so interesting that Canadians still see Harper as a Bush wannabee. He is nothing like Bush, and his government is nothing like the regime in the US.

Maybe in his ideal world Harper would be more like Bush, but we have no way to know that. Judging from what is, they are light years apart.

Harper (as pointed out by Idealistic Pragmatist) is much closer to Hillary Clinton than to Bush.

I guess many Canadians still have no idea what's really going on in the US, just like most Americans have no idea what's going on in Canada.

Formerowl, please do not take this personally. Your comment speaks for many, many people, and I mean to address the idea in general, not getting on you.

L-girl said...

It actually is more powerful than even most knowlegeable Canadians realize.

How so?

L-girl said...

But Harper's changes seem pretty weak, and his penchant for playing fast and loose with his principles makes me think this is nothing more than political grandstanding that does no real harm

This does seem to be his MO. If there's something more annoying than political grandstanding, it's political grandstanding wrapped in a cloak of more-ethical-than-thou. Bleh.

MSS said...

L-girl, you asked a "How so" to my statement that the Canadian Senate is more powerful than often acknowledged.

As I said in the previous comment, it held up the Canada-US FTA. It can block any bill except the budget. It does not do this very often, but a basic point of political science is that a veto does not have to be exercised to be effective. That is, the Government will anticipate objections and, not wanting to be publicly seen as unable to govern, meet them before things come to a veto.

But the bigger point is not the veto power of the Senate, but the actual incentives of Senators to disagree with the House and Government. That the Senate and House have generally been both controlled by Liberals makes disagreements relatively uncommon. It also makes it all the more compelling for the Government to work things out beforehand when there are disagreements. That when the Government is Conservative there are more likely to be open conflicts only buttresses the point.

As I said, the Senate's appointment by the Government means that it is not a fully independent actor, and most of them time they agree to a dvision of responsibilities between the two houses, which avoids any open conflict. Were Senators to have actual popular mandates, that arrangement would break down. Then you would see that the Senate is not a weak actor. That was the point I was trying to convey: Under elections, the Senators would have more incentive to use their actual power to slow down or veto Government initiatives.

L-girl said...

Thanks, MSS. I was hoping you'd stop by again to explain.