A letter of mine found its way into the Vancouver Sun today. This one comes in response to a piece last week by Senator Mobina Jaffer about the role of Canada’s Senate in protecting minority rights. In my letter, I argue in favour of abolishing the Senate and ensuring fair representation for minorities in the House of Commons by means of some kind of proportional representation. Please click here to read it.
For all my political ideals and self-conceptualizations, I cannot for the life of me seem to get myself more than superficially interested in the scandals that plague the holders of public office. The Rob Ford crack video hubbub is a case in point.
Yes, it is funny. Yes, there is hardly a politico more deserving of being knocked down a peg. And now, with even Ford’s brother being brought in on the fun with allegations of a drug dealing past, the entire country seems to be locked in the grips of an overpowering case of SchadenFord (no, I am not the first to think that one up).
Yet there is something disturbing in the idea that for all the regressive initiatives embraced by Ford during his two-and-a-half years as Toronto Mayor — for all his ill-advised crusades against labour, cyclists, libraries, and transit — it is the as yet unproven crack video, surely the least of his transgressions, that now threatens to do him in.
A similar point can be made about the Senate expenses scandal currently underway in Ottawa. True, this one is different from the crack case insofar as it involves the misuse of public funds, but if we focus solely on the “bad apples” like Wallin and Duffy and Harb and Brazeau, then we lose sight of the wider issue, namely the culture of entitlement inherent in an unelected upper chamber that makes the cultivation of such bad apples practically inevitable. The NDP is taking the enlightened position with respect to this scandal — criticizing the individuals involved, yes, but also connecting them to something more profound, more systemic, taking the opportunity to renew its longstanding call to abolish the Senate entirely.
And that, precisely, is what’s missing from most scandalmongering, defined as it is by an overemphasis on personalities and an underemphasis on institutions. The Fords and the Duffys of the world, entertaining though they are, do not affect us nearly as deeply as the offices they hold and the policies they implement. Of course those who do wrong deserve to be punished, but the news coverage generated by these individual wrongdoings are completely out of proportion to their true impacts.
We’d do a lot better focusing on what really matters.
This post appears on rabble.ca.
Dear Prime Minister Stephen Harper:
I am writing today in response to reports that you will seek a Supreme Court reference on the constitutionality of your proposals for Senate reform. In a way, I can understand this. You would like clarity on a politically tricky issue, one that would otherwise almost inevitably face judicial challenge.
Personally, I do not believe the court will fully endorse all features of your plan, as the Constitution Act, 1982 is quite clear regarding the constitutional amendment requirements for such fundamental changes to the upper house. But either way, both you and I know that pursuing Senate reform by statute is not a long-term solution. Any future government will be able to repeal your legislation without difficulty.
What Canada really needs, to settle the decades-long debate once and for all, is a national referendum. Not one in which the issue of Senate reform is muddied by other matters, as in the Charlottetown Accord, but a single stand-alone nationwide vote on the future of the Red Chamber. Voters should be given a choice between three possibilities: 1) an appointed Senate, 2) an elected Senate, and — my personal favourite (see here and here for my reasoning) — 3) abolition of the Senate. The ballot would also need to be preferential to make sure the winner has majority support.
Once the dust from the referendum has settled and one of these three options has become legitimized by popular endorsement, it should then become easier to get seven provincial governments representing half the country’s population (as required by the Constitution Act, 1982) to, if necessary, back a constitutional amendment. Will the provinces inevitably put aside their differences and come to an agreement after such an exercise? There is no guarantee. But this at least represents a better shot at a permanent resolution to the Senate reform debate than your Supreme Court reference case.
And what if voters settle on something other than your preferred route of an elected Senate? Am I being naive in asking you to put your own preferred outcome at risk? Only you can answer that question, Mr. Harper. All I can do is urge you to recognize that what unites all proposals for Senate reform is the desire to deepen democracy in our country. So please, respect the people — the demos — in their right to decide for themselves what institutions are most appropriate for the expression of their will. This is the only way of dealing with the Senate that truly embraces democracy.
David Taub Bancroft
Three months ago, I wrote a post warning of coming Senate elections here in British Columbia. Now it seems that the private member’s bill providing for such elections, despite Premier Christy Clark’s support, will not be making it through the sausage factory any time soon.
Reason to celebrate? Unfortunately, no. Not to be deterred, our Premier assures us that an election to replace retiring Senator Gerry St. Germain will go ahead as planned without either enabling legislation or any of that pesky public scrutiny and debate that go along with it.
I explained three months ago my opposition to an elected Senate — that it merely papers over the injustice of a fundamentally undemocratic system of representation, and effectively discards the principle of one-person-one-vote. Far better to simply abolish the outdated institution and look elsewhere for checks and balances. Yet despite the far-reaching influence that my mother assures me my blog posts ought to have, there remains a persistent myth that Canada needs a Senate in one form or another to represent regional interests. It is no coincidence that all federations have bicameral legislatures, this line of reasoning goes.
Compelling, but not quite true. The world contains twenty-four federations, and fully five of them (Venezuela, United Arab Emirates, Comoros, Micronesia, and St. Kitts and Nevis) have unicameral legislatures. Admittedly, this is a small percentage, and pales in comparison to the majority of unitary states with no upper houses. In other words, despite this sprinkling of exceptions, it seems that federalism and bicameralism do indeed tend to go hand in hand.
So let us examine the connections. First of all, is it right for the provinces to be given representation in one of the houses of the Parliament of Canada? I don’t see why. The proper agents for provincial interests are provincial governments, not federal lawmakers. If the provinces are represented in the Senate, then shouldn’t the feds, by the same logic, be represented in a second chamber of the provincial legislatures? Or if the goal is to asymmetrically increase the influence of the provinces (not an entirely unreasonable goal), then would it not be more effectively and transparently achieved by means of a simple devolution of powers?
Second, even if it were right to preserve provincial representation at the federal level, the Canadian Senate does not do this. As an appointed body, it merely serves the interests of the ruling federal party and its loyal hacks. Were Christy Clark and Stephen Harper to have their way and make the Senate an elected body, by contrast, its members would then be selected by the same people who select members of the House of Commons — i.e. Canadian voters — only their influence in certain parts of the country would be wildly and arbitrarily out of proportion to their numbers. At most, this would mean that the power of some provinces would be increased vis-a-vis other provinces, not that the power of the provinces in general would be increased vis-a-vis the feds. The only way to accomplish the latter goal through Senate reform would be to allow provincial governments to appoint Senators (the German model), and virtually no one in Canada argues for that.
So please heed my warnings, anonymous blog surfers! Senate elections, whether in BC or elsewhere in the country, will do no good, and to the extent that they legitimize an irreparably flawed institution, may do considerable harm. Let us just abolish the blasted thing and be done with it.
BC Premier Christy Clark took a break from bullying teachers yesterday to back the idea of elections to Canada’s Senate. If the private member’s bill introduced by Liberal John Les passes through the Legislature, which with the Premier’s support it almost certainly will, British Columbians could wind up voting this fall on the replacement for retiring Conservative Senator Gerry St. Germain.
The problem with Senate reform is that it places a veneer of legitimacy over what is a fundamentally unjust institution. Elected or appointed, the Canadian Senate will always be based on the formula of representation by region or province rather than representation by population, and thus will violate the cardinal democratic principle of one-person-one-vote. Yes, the status quo where we hand a veto over all our legislation to a body of basically lifetime patronage appointees is wrong, but that doesn’t make any and every change right. Senate elections will resurrect the chamber’s tattered image, and embolden it to challenge more bills passed by the House of Commons. Short of abolition, I would rather have an appointed but mostly ineffective unjust institution than an elected and effective one.
But isn’t a strongly bicameral legislature an important check on government power? I would say that the checker must be at least as democratic as the checkee. If, however, we as a society judge a second house of Parliament to be vital to our system of government, then perhaps we can consider other forms of a more participatory nature. Both BC and Ontario have in the recent past made use of citizens’ assemblies to examine options for electoral reform. Why not set up such a body on the federal level — not just to deal with a single issue but as a permanent feature of our democracy. Structured so as to represent Canadians proportionally by such demographic criteria as region, gender, ethnicity, class, age, and sexual orientation, a national citizens’ assembly could start out with a mostly advisory role, and then take on increasingly more power once the country becomes accustomed to its operation.
But in the meantime, what to do about the Senate election possibly coming to BC? Those of us who favour abolishing the Senate have a choice. We could boycott the election as a matter of principle, or we could just accept that the battle is lost and reluctantly add Senators to the list of people we vote for. A boycott carries the obvious risk of delivering victory to the worst of the worst (probably another Conservative). Perhaps the best possible outcome would be for some enterprising candidate to run on the pledge to try to abolish the Senate from within. I for one could scarcely resist voting for such a person — even if it means sullying myself by coming into contact with the notorious Red Chamber through the ballot box.