Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Friday, May 31, 2013

Canada: you’re too old to have an unelected senate

If you think you can stay excited about senatorial expense accounts for the next 2 years and have enough material to make the words “transparency and accountability” ballot issues in Canada’s next election, don’t bother to read anymore. This is about abstractions. 

The enterprise, however, entails political conflict and risk—and could lead to election drama. It doesn’t start with a leak, but with the restoration of an idea that still scares many away in the finest salons in Canada: every one of Canada’s legislators should be elected by the people.

After more than 2 centuries of experimenting with progressively stronger doses of popular democracy and anticipating that Canada’s federal government—just like its neighbor’s—will again have to make decisions that strain the federation (and not just the polling numbers of its leaders), it’s important that at long last Canada create an effective upper house by electing its 105 senators, in provincial and territorial elections, from coast to coast.

This can’t be accomplished immediately. That would definitely require extensive constitutional amendment and a huge, politically unpalatable buyout for today’s senate incumbents. As a minimum, however, the Harper government should more aggressively promote, nationwide, the senate nomination process that is now working in Alberta.

(Last year, 2.7 million Albertans participated in the 4th senate nominee election. British Columbia supports the idea in principle; just last week, the new Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne, declared in favor of senate reform and against abolition. Big players with differing interests are available as potential allies.)

This proposition doesn’t ask any sensible person to stop worrying or complaining about their politicians—or other voters, for that matter. It doesn’t say that there needn’t be effective checks on popular opinion and its too-indulgent political representatives. Certainly, it doesn’t say Canada needs to make federal governance more complicated to appease a rebellious region. (It doesn’t even surrender my optimism that North American federation is a workable, if not a topical, endgame.)

It stands simply on the insistence that we should only be led by people we elect and the happy observation that elected federations are resilient and effective. 

The $100 million figure that Canadians spend now on an unelected senate isn’t scandalous. After all, we’ve been doing it all our lives. But scandal does cloud a more embarrassing problem. Unlike all the significant democratic federations in the world, Canada hasn’t been able to put in place all the democratic machinery of a modern federal democracy—it’s incomplete.

Holding more press conferences and hiring more accountants will not finish the job of making Ottawa a first-rank federal capital. Furthermore, teaching Stephen Harper how to explain himself to insiders will not re-elect his dull government. He’s declared himself, committed a conservative party, and tabled legislation to steadily transform the Canadian senate into a fully elected upper house. It’s time the idea became a popular issue, an objective that will divide politicians and give Canadians an important choice.
The grand alternative to reform: outright abolition of the one legislative body that pretends to represent small provinces and the minority “nation” of Quebec would definitely—and appropriately—require the consent of those provinces and their legislatures. It would leave Canadians with 1 constituency assembly much like the US House of Representatives.

It would not be a good-faith idea without conceding something substantial for the provinces in return—like sovereignty-association for Quebec or substantive federal powers for the House of the Provinces, for instance. Furthermore, it favors the more streamlined decision-making preferred by central planners and, at the same time, it would inevitably elevate the vicarious interest of provincial governments in solving Canada’s problems as well as their own.

The strongest arguments against an elected senate are antiquated in every respect.

The best case against the idea of transforming today’s senate into an elective body is that its representation is unrepresentative; small provinces have too many senators, and growing provinces too few. As it became more legitimate by being more democratic, it would feel freer to “interfere” with the legislative prerogatives of the House of Commons—an assembly elected roughly on the basis on one-person one-vote. This concern is over-rated.

Why would the House of Commons voluntarily surrender their sole authority to initiate money bills and create and dissolve the governments of the day? How would they be bullied into it? The senate would remain noticeably under-represented in the most populous and the growing regions of the country, where federal governments are elected and defeated. It makes no sense that the people in those regions would want to or could be tricked into weakening the House of Commons—the popular assembly they dominate.

It is not certain, in fact, that senate under-representation of Western provinces would be fixed after creating an elected senate. Fifty US states have been electing US senators for over a century and the US senate still gives 2 seats to Vermont and 2 to California.

Concern about inequitable representation, however, overlooks: first, that one of the most disadvantaged under the status quo—Alberta—is already electing its senators; second, that the House of Commons itself still happily over-represents small provinces and sparse regions and territories despite its one obligation to represent individuals equally; and, third, it completely ignores the value of having one national assembly of politicians elected by millions of citizens and not just constituencies within each province.

To put it simply: alongside the Prime Minister’s House of Commons majority, there would soon be numerous politicians with the talent and ambition to campaign amongst and speak up for many different communities and diverse interests.

The US Senate, historically, has been considered the West’s pre-eminent legislative assembly not for its constitutional powers but for the caliber of those who get there—often from relatively small as well as very large states.

Justin Trudeau and those who write worried books and op-ed pieces about the imperial Prime Minister’s office and the bias in all parliamentary democracies to concentrate too much power in the Executive offer puny, illusory solutions. They talk about attitudes and good character; more independent-minded backbenchers, more researchers, a more laissez-faire Prime Minister; and a press that doesn’t report caucus opposition as a "rebellion." 

If they’re serious, they should join the campaign for an elected senator; a senate of individuals who account to voters, who might want to run again for the senate or for higher office, and who have the back of hundreds of thousands when they address the policies of the Executive.

In politics, power is only checked by other individuals with political power and political promise of their own.

A democratic center of power has more legitimacy to execute controversial decisions after various sources of independent political power—in that city—have debated what to do.

For those reasons—for power and for the people—it’s high time to declare for senate elections.

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