Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Senate Reform and Referedums

It is always nice seeing new friends play together happily in the playground but when it is Stephen Harper and Jack Layton who are having fun any sensible teacher will make sure the fire extinguisher is at hand.

Senate reform in Canada is long overdue and there is only one reform that makes sense -- abolish the place. It is an affront to democracy in a modern era to have an unelected institution whose principal function is to frustrate democratic decision making (well that is what "provide sober second thought" really means). In terms of regional representation and balance, in a federal state we supposedly protect regional or local interests by having regional or local governments -- provinces.

Steve and Jackie-L though have come up with an idea -- let's have a national referendum to poll the public in a more formal way about abolishing the Senate. This is a bad idea. First it serves no purpose -- we all know what the man in the street thinks -- abolish the Senate. It is only policy wonks and die hard Reformers who still think of the Triple-E Senate (a slightly worse affront to democracy).

Second, it opens the constitutional reform can of worms. Whether the referendum passes or not, the only way to implement it is through the amending process in the Constitution. This requires seven of ten provinces to sign on to the amendment. The difficulty come as each province arrives with a shopping list of amendments that will absolutely have to go along with the abolition of the Senate. Immediate deadlock will ensue. Remember the premiers of every small province will be opposed because the Senate gives those provinces greater power nationally (Danny Williams would love to say "no" and this will give the premier of PEI the one chance to have his (or her?) name known by anybody on the other side of the Confederation Bridge). Quebec will oppose because the Constitution is an illegitimate document anyway and there will be a list of things that will have to be implemented to make up for Quebec's loss of status through the abolition of the Senate. It would then just take one other province to torpedo the project.

This brings me to the third problem: the disappointment of the public. It is one thing to have Senate reform bubbling away as one of a myriad of issues that the public occasionally considers; it is quite another to have a formal referendum and then fail to follow through. The cynicism this will entrench around the democratic process is something we really do not need in our country right now.

Why has Jack Layton taken on Senate Reform? Well he knows that this is something that will appeal to his new pal Steve and will put the old school yard bully the Liberals (led by that wimp Stephan) into a tight spot. It will put Stephan in an exquisitely difficult position in fact. Immediately Stephan will have ask, "do the Liberals stand up for Senate abolition (which would destroy their last bastion of power if implemented)?" Even if Stephan supports Senate abolition he creates a quandary -- he alienates his supporters with their sinecures in the Senate and further undermines the Liberals' position as a credible opposition (since they will oppose nothing). It will be even worse for Stephan then if the senators oppose the referendum and Stephan is then called upon by Steve and his new ally Jack to discipline those unruly Liberal senators. When Stephan can't, well, we already knew he was ineffectual, right?

Thus this proposition is nothing but short term political fun for Steve and Jack, unless, of course, Stephan supports it and brings the senators into line thus having the referendum proceed. This would actually be the best move for Stephan, provided he can actually get the senators onside. It would be cynical beyond comment given that Dion will know full well that the abolition will never be implemented -- but then that is Steve's problem, not his (unless Stephan wins the next election -- now that would be a whoops).

Why doesn't Jack support a referendum on something that really would advance the NDP interest as it is likely to exist for many years to come -- say, a referendum on proportional representation with a properly funded 'yes' committee. Better still, it is a minority Parliament and the idea has appeal to the Conservatives, why not just implement some form of proportional representation? The answer to that question is that Jack has set his sights too low. He would consider it his crowning achievement if the NDP displaced the Liberals on the progressive centre/left and became the 'real opposition'. The problem with that is that the most the NDP could hope for then would be to be a permanent opposition hoping for minority governments -- the Conservatives would rule forever.

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