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)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Partisan spite: why we don’t fix things any more.


Many good politicians retire without accomplishing anything very important. Often, in less fortunate countries, they fail because their voters are dangerously divided or because change would be too painful. Canadian legislators, however, can only blame themselves.

Take the unelected, unappreciated, unrepresentative, and unaccountable Canadian Senate.

A majority of Canadians, in every region, as well as the Harper majority government, think its 105 members should be elected by the people—or it should be abolished. Others, particularly elected politicians, regret it exists or claim to fear that it can’t be easily reformed.  

The country isn’t bitterly divided and no faction of elected politicians would squander their political capital to save the Senate from reform. Yet smart money insists that it will carry on long after Harper retires or is defeated.

It survives, in large part, because Canadian politicians dislike each other far more than they dislike the Senate. Their noisy animus and the Senate’s quiet ways keep things as they are. Only rarely do senators speak on its behalf; and when they do, they confirm the virtue of silence.

This week in a boastful column in the National Post, Liberal Senate Leader Senator James S. Cowan tackled democratic reformers directly:

“No democracy is completely run by elected officials. Every democracy has a place for elected representatives, and a place for appointed ones. Even in the United States, there is a place for appointed officials. Unlike in Canada, the American Cabinet is made up of unelected people chosen and appointed by the President. Does that mean the U.S. government is not democratic, or that its decisions are illegitimate? Absolutely not: Every successful democracy balances elected and unelected officials.”

This is not the sophistry of a stupid man. It’s simply the work of a man who answers to no one.

Appointed US officials don’t make laws, raise taxes, approve treaties, make war, or appoint themselves; only elected House of Representatives, senators, and presidents do. And none of the President’s appointees can stand in their way. Only the Supreme Court can obstruct the people’s representatives and, even then, only on behalf of a constitution that was fashioned by the people’s representatives.

Likely unimpressed himself, Cowan went on to trim his case:

“Should the Senate be elected? Perhaps; that is an issue that has been debated since before Confederation, and was a major option considered, and rejected, by the Fathers of Confederation in drafting what is now our Constitution. Personally, I am not opposed to Senate elections. But that is not my decision to make (nor is it an option for any particular government to impose unilaterally).”

“Personally” is the word a powerful person uses to disguise their power. “Frankly” is more widely used to dress up a lie.

In truth, the leader of the Liberal Party in the Senate and the leader of the Liberal Party in the House of Commons don’t favor an elected Senate and will do what they can to prevent it happening.

Harper was elected 3 times as a prime minister who wants the people, not his office, to appoint future senators. His government’s legislation to formalize province-wide Senate elections offends Senator Cowan not because it is unilateral, but because it’s liberal.

A Conservative would be making Canada more democratic. Not on his watch.

Of course, Justin Trudeau’s position is both ironic and unworthy.

His family name is still his biggest asset and that name was made by a prime minister who would have retired a failure if the conservative premiers of Ontario, Alberta, and New Brunswick had not backed his gamble to create a Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. 

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