Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Second Thoughts

I know there's no rule that says I have to post every few days here but I kind of feel I should put something up. Unfortunately, the only real newsworthy story out there right now is...gulp...Jack Layton's musings on the Senate. So it is with great reluctance that I link to Layton's call for a referendum on abolishing the Senate. Apart from Harper tossing a bone to his base ("I'm sorry about the Quebec nation thing but look! Bert Brown!"), I can't see this being a real vote mover for anyone. I'd be surprised if the question of Senate abolition gets on a referendum ballot anytime soon.

As for me...meh. I think there's something to be said for having the Senate as a check on the House and they do a lot of good committee work, adding needed amendments to more bills than people realize. It's abundantly clear that the current system is deeply flawed but I think an elected Senate would be far worse. Once you elect Senators, you're giving the institution legitimacy and inviting activist decisions which opens up a whole can of worms, especially if you have unfair regional representation.

So, yeah, it's kind of a non starter for me. But for all of you out there who love talking Senate reform, go nuts!



  • Senate abolition would be better than reform because I'd rather do away with $60 million than spend more money on elections nobody will care about.

    By Blogger Raphael Alexander, at 10:11 p.m.  

  • "Once you elect Senators, you're giving the institution legitimacy..."

    So... you prefer an institution that doesn't have legitimacy?

    By Blogger Don Johnson, at 10:19 p.m.  

  • I just cannot get worked up about it one way or the other.

    Really, there are so many other issues that need to be addressed in this country why are we even talking about this?

    By Blogger ottlib, at 10:46 p.m.  

  • Doing away with the Senate is a very dangerous rhing..... think of all the consequences.

    By Blogger Lizt., at 11:11 p.m.  

  • I have a hard time tying myself down to a position on this. In terms of abolision, the Senate does do some good work and, in theory, is a needed check. That said most of our provinces have been without an upper house for 100 years and are doing fine.

    You are right that regional representation should be addressed. The Senate needs to be a regional body, if we do rep-by-pop there then that defeats the purpose of having a Senate as it would just be a mirror of the House. However, the regions, as currently structured, make no sense. First the territories and Newfoundland & Labrador aren't a part of any region, second the three Maritime provinces are one region while the four Western provinces are one region which is senseless for a variety of regions.

    Before we even think about bringing in elections, we must reform the representation because you legitimize a body that gives Alberta and PEI roughly the same number of seats, give New Brunswick nearly twice as many and Ontario 4 times as much.

    There is a proposal before the Senate that would go some way to correcting this imbalance but it creates fatal flaws. The fundamental basis of the structure of our Senate is senators from regions of 24 members. The proposal before the Senate leaves NL and the territories outside of regions and creates a region of 12 - both of which create problems with other clauses in the constitution.

    Now, assuming you get the regional thing fixed, I am not sure about election. If you introduce electoral politics, you eliminate the concept of "sober second thought" because people are concerned with re-election. I think if there is a real feeling of a need to "democratize" the Senate, then it must be either long terms with no right of re-election or a hybrid of elections and appointments to retain the "sober second thought" function.

    The former option could be executed with 12 year terms, one third of senators being elected at each general election - a hybrid of the election models in the U.S. and Australia - and Senators forbidden from seeking re-election. The election model though would also probably require each province broken into Senate electoral districts because if Ontario and other large province Senators had to run province-wide campaigns, only the ridiculously well funded could be elected and it would be hard to equate the Senator from Ontario that ran along 7 other victorious candidates to earn the votes of 10 million people to the guy from PEI that ran solo or along with 1 other guy to win the votes of 100,000.

    The second model could a fraction (1/3 or 1/2 perhaps) of Senators elected, while the balance were appointed by the Governor General on a non-partisan basis; perhaps all companions of the Order of Canada become Senators?

    I could go on but I suspect I've bored enough of you to tears.

    By Blogger nbpolitico, at 11:55 p.m.  

  • There are many other parlimentary democracies in the world that have elected senates. Why can't we be another one?

    By Blogger Brandon E. Beasley, at 12:07 a.m.  

  • I'm toying with an idea of having the Senate be the elected proportional representation chamber, leaving the House to be the FPTP chamber. It would produce a system where you'd have common majorities in the House but the Senate would rarely if ever also be held in a majority, leading to necessary compromise and consensus... which is a very good thing, IMO.

    What's very nice about this is you get the added bonus of having elected representation for various provinces from parties that do very poorly in those provinces and rarely elect MPs (i.e. NDP in Quebec, Liberals in Alberta, Conservatives in PEI)

    The only problem I have is the size of the Senate - I'm trying various models that try to reduce the imbalance in current provincial distribution without needing to amend the Constitution, but I'm not sure what a good number is - around 100 would be good but won't work without accepting the imbalance as it currently stands.

    Once I've worked out more than just rough models, I'll post them up somewhere. I really think this would be a great way to add legitimacy to the Senate while addressing a need for PR at the federal level.

    By Blogger Mike, at 12:13 a.m.  

  • This comment has been removed by the author.

    By Blogger Mike, at 12:13 a.m.  

  • I think it takes a good old fashioned Liberal to not see a problem with wasting $76,526,904.00 a year on a largely defunct and sterile institution. (www.thestar.com/comment

    But never mind the money. God knows we've pissed it away on any number of other bright ideas like the gun registry. What is so deeply disturbing about the Senate is that it represents so many political ills, not least of all patronage, unaccountability, and a complete disregard for the public will.

    Whether it is reform or abolition, in order for Canada to transform itself into a more substantial democracy it needs to address this type of anachronism.

    Besides - it should be good fun.

    By Blogger fair sailing, at 1:24 a.m.  

  • "unfair regional representation"? I think regional representation in a second chamber is exactly what democracy should look like in Canada. Quebec isn't the only distinct province in the federation. I'm with don johnson (below) - an elected senate with accountability and legitimacy is required. That, or abolish the damned chamber once and for all. See fair sailing's comment about fiscal expenditures on a body that does absolutely nothing.

    By Blogger sara, at 1:33 a.m.  

  • As Kinsella says, "an unelected Senate is an abomination in a modern democracy." I heartily agree.

    Of course this is more to do with showing voters how the Liberal dominated Senate and therefore the Liberal party will oppose any and all calls for reforming the system, thereby giving Harper and Layton a club to whack Liberals over the head with at election time.

    If indeed an elected Senate would "give the institution legitimacy and invite activist decisions which open up a whole can of worms" then doesn't that statement (aside from your affirmation that the Senate is indeed an illegitimate body that takes it's marching orders from its political masters rather than, you know, voters) isn't it supposed to be a body of sober second thought rather than simply a "yes organ" for governments?

    If the Liberals refuse to reform the Senate, then yes, it should be abolished all together. Were Dion a smart-ish guy, he might want to come out and say something like this:

    "Liberals support the democratization of the Senate and knowing that there are currently 12 vacant seats and a further 16 seats that will become vacant before the end of 2009, the Liberal party supports Senate elections to fill those spots."

    Hey... pretty strange how nobody seems to be talking about Mulroney huh?

    By Blogger The Grumpy Voter, at 7:01 a.m.  

  • Canada is the only country where federal-provincial summits are more than glad-handing. We are also one of the few federal countries with a weak upper house.

    The thing is that we have a de facto senate in many ways - the premiers. However, they are lousy at everything.

    To me the ideal aim of the senate SHOULD be to provide a national unity safeguard to all policies. Bills may have the support of a majority of our national representations, and a majority of the public, and yet screw over part of the country.

    By Blogger hosertohoosier, at 8:49 a.m.  

  • I'm with NBPolitico on this one. I have never thought an elected senate was a good idea. If indeed we have a senate to provide the people with a "sober second thought" then I for one do not want that sst to be potentially influenced by lobbyists, special interest groups, etc. Why are people so afraid to abolish it?

    I recognize that senate committees do some important work, but can't those people be doing it through some other channel.

    I may be willing to hedge a bit with some sort of combination of one term only, proportional rep, but really.... I say do away with it.

    If people are worried that we can't trust our politicians in the house make the right decisions for this nation, then we're in a whole world of hurt and that's a whole other ball game.

    Why this and not Bitter Brian???

    By Blogger Scooge, at 9:13 a.m.  

  • Senators are appointed by the party we elect to form the government of the time. Their legitimacy stems from that election, and the accountability for that decision falls upon the party that appointed them (see Michael Fortier)

    Having an elected Senate means that senators, like politicians, will get chosen largely based on media representation. Personally, I feel the media already has too much sway over politics, but getting a significant fraction of the population interested in actually examining platforms rather than sound-bites is a lot harder than removing some of the media's ability to influence.

    At the same time, abolishing the senate isn't a great way to go either, as politicians think in 4 year cycles but some problems are longer than that. To say the provinces work as sober second thought is to ignore what actually happening in the various provinces at the moment, such as Alberta's infrastructure crumbling while the people all receive $400 cheques to buy a new stereo. Again, a decision made on the media playability rather than any sound thinking.

    If some democratization must come of the senate, do it through a process of de-elections. Each general election, the electorate is allowed to place one senator on their ballot for removal. If more than half of the voters (or perhaps some slightly lower percentage) vote for the same senator, that person is removed from the position.

    This way, as the population's outlook changes, the senate can, slowly, change to reflect it.

    By Blogger Kwil, at 10:43 a.m.  

  • Well this debate is resolved easily enough. Those lined up with Layton are the abolitionists and those opposed are the anti-abolitionists. And really, who wants to be an anti-abolitionist?

    By Blogger Leny Vilekoskytch, at 10:53 a.m.  

  • I have posted on this in a few blogs now - might as well do so here too.

    I do not believe Dion has ever said he is against reforming the senate. I believe what he has said is that Harper's method of introducing bills to elect senators and introduce term limits is not constitutional, and is not true senate reform.

    The only way to address this issue is to reopen the constitution. This country is too fractured at this time to engage in another round of constitutional negotiations. Look what happened last time.

    I believe senate reform is needed, however I agree with the posters who point out this is not a top priority for Canada right now.

    When the time is right, we need to have a non-partisan panel of constitutional experts look at this issue and consider solutions.

    Proposing a referendum is about a dangerous way to approach this issue. Canadians need information in order to make an educated decision.

    For example, abolishing the senate would likely result in decentralizing powers to the provinces, which I doubt is Layton's intention - though he had no answer for this when confronted by Don Newman yesterday.

    By Blogger Gayle, at 11:06 a.m.  

  • The starting point from this debate, given the broad spectrum of responses, is to ask whether we ought to have two houses of Parliament or one. Provinces get along with only one. Most western democracies have two.

    The next question is whether a second house, if desired, should be elected or appointed and how long for either. I don't think anyone designing a system from scratch would suggest that the Prime Minister gets to appoint members for life. Germany has provinces (lander) appoint members at the pleasure of the appointing government.

    The third question is whether representation should be proportional or not. This is usually a no-brainer; it's redundant to have two rep-by-pop houses and the reason for most upper houses is to balance the distortions a strict rep-by-pop system brings, and is one reason why regionally fractured countries favour upper houses (U.S., Australia, Germany). It also lets the lower house be strictly rep-by-pop and not pander to regional representation with respect to riding size, etc.

    Looking at the three ingredients, I can't conceive of anyone saying that the status quo is defensible. And looking at the number of countries that have viable second houses serving a regional representation functions, I don't understand how people can credibly predict disaster if ours is reformed.

    By Blogger matt, at 11:42 a.m.  

  • >>This country is too fractured at this time to engage in another round of constitutional negotiations.<<

    Oh God, gimme a break! When ISN'T the country fractured? Jumpin' Dyin' Moses, we're less of a country and more of a collective of regional interests that says "me first" and everyone else can get f----ed.

    By Blogger The Grumpy Voter, at 12:07 p.m.  

  • There's no ideal solution to the senate. Personally, I would do something like the following:

    1. rebalance. Don't make it exactly even between provinces, or exactly rep by pop, but something a bit fairer than what we have now.

    2. Elect by proportional representation. We give them some legitimacy, but force them to work together, and not worry directly about being re-elected.

    3. Term limits. Give each senator their 4/6/8/10/12 years or whatever.

    With those, then you give it some legitimacy, but it's still a secondary house.

    Either that or go crazy with the lottery idea, and appoint people to the senate at random.

    By Blogger UWHabs, at 12:29 p.m.  

  • don johnson; Yup. If you give the Senate legitimacy, they'll start voting down bills and being more aggressive. That, by itself, is a problem. If you still have an unfair seat distribution in the Senate, that only makes matters worse because now it's legitimate and making decisions, but it doesn't represent Canada properly.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:30 p.m.  

  • "When ISN'T the country fractured? Jumpin' Dyin' Moses, we're less of a country and more of a collective of regional interests that says "me first" and everyone else can get f----ed."

    And how will this be improved by reopening the constitution? I am not interested in starting a debate that may end with a broken country.

    There have been a number of ideas here. In fact there are as many ideas as there are citizens. This is why I suggest that if the government is serious about this measure, stop the phoney "reform" bills, and this silly referendum idea. Put some meat into it - give Canadians information from which they can make an educated decision. Get non-partisan experts involved. But be prepared because you are probably going to see great differences in opinion between the regions.

    By Blogger Gayle, at 1:41 p.m.  

  • Mike - I can kind of get behind a rep by pop election for the Senate, so long as Senators had long terms and weren't required to seek re-election. But I just think you'd need to have some guidelines to make sure they couldn't hold up a budget or major legislation...it should still only be for fine tuning except in exceptional circumstances.

    Also - as a few people said, Dion isn't against Senate reform at all. He's been talking about some things like term limits for a long time.

    By Blogger calgarygrit, at 1:42 p.m.  

  • CalGrit sez: Unfortunately, the only real newsworthy story out there right now is...gulp...Jack Layton's musings on the Senate.

    Keith muses: So the Sask election is not newsworthy?

    By Blogger Keith Richmond, at 2:58 p.m.  

  • >>And how will this be improved by reopening the constitution? I am not interested in starting a debate that may end with a broken country.<<

    The country is already broken. We have inter-provincial trade barriers, regional jealousies, linguistic and cultural barriers... the list goes on. There is no happy medium - some things have to be addressed by reopening the constitution, otherwise we're held hostage by our fear of further breaking our already divided country.

    By Blogger The Grumpy Voter, at 3:13 p.m.  

  • Our country is not broken.

    For an example of a broken country look at Belgium.

    I never said we can never amend the constitution. All I have said, if you bothered to read, is that it has to be done right. A referendum, without some basic information and understanding behind the options, is dangerous.

    By Blogger Gayle, at 4:06 p.m.  

  • Gayle: Belgium is the vision that Stephen Harper has for this country. As I understand it, Duceppe and his MPs will vote for this motion, which means that he does not recognize the legitimacy of the government of Quebec to deal with matters relating to the Constitution. All MPs voting for this motion signal that they do not recognize the legitimacy of the Provinces with matters relating to the Constitution.

    By Blogger Loraine Lamontagne, at 5:05 p.m.  

  • "Gayle: Belgium is the vision that Stephen Harper has for this country."


    By Blogger Gayle, at 5:12 p.m.  

  • Senators are appointed by the party we elect to form the government of the time. Their legitimacy stems from that election, and the accountability for that decision falls upon the party that appointed them . . .

    Good point. Now if only their term ended when their appointer's did. And in that lies the problem. We kick out a corrupt government, be it Mulroney's or Chretien's, and we are stuck with the ghosts of Christmas past in the Senate. Those spectres in the upper chamber see it as their duty to thwart the will of the new elected house, in their arrogance thinking they are a brake on the unbridled foolishness of the commons.

    If the Senate were really a chamber of sober second thought and not a dumping ground for hacks, retreads, and a reward for questionable service, I might grudgingly let it be. Unfortunately it is what it is and as such it is only a tool for the PM to try to project his will well past his best before date. As such it is illegitimate despite the quote above, and should be abolished. I see no way to reform it that lacks extreme danger or fairness, or both.

    By Blogger The Rat, at 7:55 p.m.  

  • Rat - I couldn't agree more. This Victorian concept of 'sober second thought' from our unelected betters is farcical in this day and age. Why have elections at all if we have so little regard for the electorate?

    Even more ridiculous is the notion that the media drives election results (kwil) - a concept that has been turned on its head in the last couple of general elections - and that an unelected chamber's immunity to the glare of public scrutiny is somehow a path to virtuous behaviour in the country's interests. How shockingly naive!

    The lament that we are tired of constitutional issues and wrangling, or, that there are more important issues than addressing glaring faults in our democratic fabric surely fall far from the mark in an age where we have unparalleled prosperity and yet are seeing such strong regional disquiet (the Sask Party was elected last night - not the Libs, Cons or NDP).

    A senate debate could be exactly what this country needs at this time.

    (And no, Liberal disarray is not a more pressing issue for the country than senate reform - despite what the pundits at Torstar may think.)

    By Blogger fair sailing, at 3:32 a.m.  

  • Following up on Rat and Far Sailing…
    I once heard AG Sheila Fraser explain to a committee of the HoC that when she reports to them she spends most of her time explaining the process and correcting their misinformed views. However, she said, the real scrutiny is done when she appears in front of the Senate committees whose members have read many of her reports over the years and are quite familiar with her practices. That is where the going gets tough for her and where she gets the most fruitful and productive interactions. Having watched committees from both chambers in action, this would seem true in every case. You two totally dismiss the value of experience.

    I think a permanent committee of the Senate should be struck to evaluate the needs for special expertise in their membership so that the Prime Minister can appoint the best and most needed individuals. The term should stay to age 75.

    By Blogger Loraine Lamontagne, at 7:23 a.m.  

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