Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Elected Senate: "I Don't Think Harper Knows What He's Up To"

Anyone who has reservations about the possible implications of an elected Senate should give this article a read. Harper seems determined to forge ahead with his plan, mainly as a way to appease his base, despite the pitfalls. Instead of democratizing the process, the Harper plan puts accountability into question:
It is unclear what is gained through elections if the victorious senators are still allowed to remain in office until age 75 or until their resignation, as the Constitution dictates...

"Once elected, the senators are there until 75. What have you accomplished?" ask Mr. Franks, who has written pieces defending the work of the current upper chamber. "In Canada, you elect people and then they are accountable for their acts in a succeeding election. The senators are appointed until 75, so that opportunity doesn't exist."

Harper plans to go ahead with an elected Senate, without provincial consultation, which means the Senate would essentially lack accountability. After election, Senators are free to do as they wish, without the voter check that democracy demands. In a sense, the Senator's would have greater latitude than MP's because they are not subject to electoral reprisals. How is this reform an advancement on democracy?

Once engaged, the newly elected Senator's would wake from their "effective" slumber and become a player:
Regardless, once the elected senators are in the upper chamber they may feel empowered to flex their muscles, Mr. Behiels warns. The Senate does have the power to block legislation and send it back to the House of Commons, but that power is rarely deployed because Senators are viewed as lacking the degree of legitimacy enjoyed by elected MPs in the House of Commons.

"The elected senators might say, 'We have nothing to stop us. We have these powers. We're going to use them.' That will immediately cause a clash with the House of Commons, because all of this hasn't been worked out in advance," says Mr. Behiels.

His warning is echoed by Ronald Watts, a former director of Queen's University's Institute of Intergovernmental Relations. In the book Protecting Canadian Democracy, he writes that leaving the powers of the Senate as is while introducing direct elections represents a recipe for disaster.

"Doing this while leaving the powers unchanged and without introducing a deadlock resolution process ... might open the way to serious problems in the operation of responsible government."

Historically, the Senate has been weary of serious challenges to Commons legislation because they lacked democratic legitimacy. Harper's simplistic, superficial remedy allows for a legislature that becomes increasingly partisan, prone to pork barrel haggling and a general inability to function smoothly. Adding another layer of bureaucracy, without additional constitutional tinkering serves no one, apart from the appeasing appearance of "elected".

I am not against Senate reform per se, although I think you can make a strong argument that abolishing it is the most seasonable. Harper's approach doesn't show much depth, a mere bandaid solution that opens up an entire different set of problems that will have to be addressed. I think this quote sums up the initiative quite nicely:
"I don't think Harper knows what he's up to," says Michael Behiels, a professor of Canadian political history at the University of Ottawa. "Harper is being led by his wishes to satisfy the Reform-Alliance wing of the Conservative party, rather than any real understanding of what this will entail."

Such is the case with kneejerk agendas, meant to garner votes, without a careful consideration of consequence.


Anonymous said...

We need constitutional reform in this country, and the Senate is only one piece of that.

Steve V said...


Harper's reform has no constitutional mandate, which allows for all sorts of problems. If you accept the premise that we need constitutional reform, you must look at the system in totality- no one is served by unilateral reform on one issue, without amending the rest of the system.

kevvyd said...

Interesting article and post - thanks. I haven't given enough thought to what Senate reform really means, obviously.