Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Kill It, Fix It, Leave It Alone, My Head Hurts

I don't take Senator Segal's words at face value, the political angle is obvious- put Senate reform on the front burner in an election campaign, with the hopes it will be play to Conservative advantage. Having said that, a referendum on the Senate is intriguing:
A Conservative senator wants voters to decide whether to put Canada's sleepy upper chamber into permanent repose.

Senator Hugh Segal — who could be doing himself out of a job if people say yes — says he believes in the value of the Senate, but its legitimacy as a non-elected body is dubious.

Mr. Segal, a former chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, says he wants a debate and a referendum on the Senate's future.

“We've had 17 efforts at reforming the Senate since 1900,” he said. “All of them have failed.

“The legitimacy of the place is under attack on a pretty regular basis.”

Mr. Segal says he'd personally vote against abolition because he feels the Senate offers regional and provincial interests and can be a check on poorly drafted laws rushed through the Commons.

Senate reform seems a never ending saga, everyone has an opinion, solutions are piecemeal. A national referendum would end the debate once and for all. If Canadians chose to keep the Senate, then it could get on with business, without the constant distraction of legitimacy and power struggles. If Canadians chose to abolish the Senate, then the irritant is removed and the landscape is clear. Either way, there is clarity, a solution.

I suppose any referendum would have to include a dreaded third option, that of Senate reform. The only way this question could be included is if it was clearly defined, otherwise we would just re-enter the malaise. That fact demands a great deal of consultation on what reform would be offered. Given that we have had many attempts at reform, it is hard to see a consensus on the question that would satisfy the various interests and regions. The third option might be a non-starter, because it really speaks to the problem in the first place.

Therefore, I would favor two options at this point, abolish or maintain, which might not be satisfactory to large segments of the population. Come to think of it, this whole discussion of a referendum on the Senate is so inherently problematic, it makes the whole idea wishful thinking at best. In the end, there would be no clarity, just latent acrimony and divisions. Nevermind.


Greg Fingas said...

I'd be all for a genuine yes-or-no election on abolition. But the most important quote from the article as to the Cons' strategy is this:

But, Mr. Segal said, if the pro-Senate side campaigned on a pledge of reform, “that would constitute a basis to go forward.”

Basically Segal is counting on the "no" side winning the votes of both people who want to keep the Senate as it is and those who want to see a U.S. election/term limit model. And once the referendum was done, they'd then claim all those votes as a mandate for the Reform model. In other words, basically the Wheat Board plebiscite all over again.

Steve V said...

"In other words, basically the Wheat Board plebiscite all over again."

That's what I was thinking too :)

Mark Dowling said...

The status quo is entirely untenable and if Tories were as stacked in the Senate as Liberals currently are the yelling from Cherniak et al would be deafening. A notion of retention without reformable should not be entertained by those who consider themselves democrats when the West is outrageously under-represented in the Senate and the East clinging to historical oddity (not unlike the McGuinty policy on Education).

Let's have a list system election within each province with the exception of ON and QC where regional lists could apply (GTA/SW Ont/East Ont/North Ont) with seats strictly apportioned to population excepting a minimum of one seat for PEI and the Territories.

I would favour it being out of phase with Commons elections but enough of the jobs for life and the egregious holding up of animal rights bills and so on. The UK Parliament Acts should be transposed to ensure the Upper House can "advise and warn" but not defy the Commons.

Anonymous said...

More important things to deal with wouldn't you say?

Segal apparently is not in Harper's good books - and I wonder, does the guy need attention?

Susan said...

I thought the man had some smarts - guess not - ever heard of the phrase "clear question" Mr. Segal?

Anonymous said...

Hey, if it is a choice between abolition and Harper's STV model then I would campaign hard for abolition. Segal said that he would accept a 50 per cent plus 1 vote.

This would have Harper and Layton shaking hands in the back rooms full of glee.

Like electoral reform, anything is better than these appointed hacks.

Koby said...

The Reform people have always wanted to have cake and eat it too when it came to the senate. On the one hand they are argued the current senate is undemocratic. And on the other hand they have argued that the senate is “ineffective”. The problem is a body that adds nothing to the genuine "effective" democratic process can not take away anything either.

Still, that begs the question: would Canada be better off with two “effective” houses? The answer is of course not. As Benjamin Franklin put it, having two equally matched houses makes as much sense as tying two equally matched horses to either end of a buggy and having them both pull. This should be obvious. It certainly was to the original supporters of the senate. The name of Britain’s two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, is very telling in that regard. The purpose of having a House of Lords was to check the will of common people. One of the main purposes of the Canadian senate, which was modeled after the British system, was to do the same.

The class based nature of the senate has long since been forgotten though and we are left with a corpse destined to provide regional representation though. Some believe that the regions need more say and an “effective” and “elected” senate is the best way of achieving such a balance between population centers in Eastern Canada and the rest of us. The problem is two fold. First it rests on a false contrast, seats in the House of Commons are supposed to be assigned on a rep by pop basis, but in actuality that is not the case. For example, PEI has a population of 135,851 and has 4 MPs and people in the riding of Oak Ridges Markham has a population of 169, 642 obviously have 1 MP. The second reason is that comparing province to province is a perverse misnomer. It is comparing apples to oranges. What one should be comparing is the political resources of people in any two ridings. When one does this it is abundantly clear that people in Canada’s urban centers in particular are getting the short end of the stick and that people living in the less populous regions of the country already have far more clout on a per person basis by virtue of the fact that the provincial and territorial jurisdictions in which they are a member or far less populous. Indeed, PEI and its population of 135,851 and 4 MPs, as a province, has revenue streams available to it that are simply not available to Oak Ridges Markham and its population of 169, 642 and 1 MP. Oak Ridges Markham does not get Federal transfer payments. Empowering 4 PEI senators to represent the interests of 135,851 people while only empowering 24 Ontario Senators to represent the interests of 12.1 million Ontarians simply adds insult to injury. It is also grossly undemocratic.

Steve V said...


I'll put you in the kill it category then?

Koby said...