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)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Senate Reform: The Value of Attracting Ambitious Politicians

Canadian opposition parties and pundits both favor allowing government backbenchers greater freedom to vote against government bills and speak up against government policies. They like the idea of letting the Prime Minister and his Party’s debt-holders in the House of Commons act as if they were free agents in public. At the same time, they don’t want things to get out of hand; they’re heavily invested in the proposition that the constitutional division of powers between the President and separate Houses of Congress is the source of America’s terrible political gridlock.

Consequently, they are squeamish about creating an elected Canadian Senate. An assembly of politicians elected in province-wide elections would be tricky. They’d answer to their own voters, they’d have their own following, and they wouldn’t be Senators because they had once caught the eye of a prime minister.

By being elected, they’d shift attention and, eventually, some concrete power from the House of Commons. The place would be emboldened—and, at the same time, corrupted—by electoral legitimacy and political ambition.

Setting aside the possibility that Canada’s federation is so small and so united that it doesn’t need even a rainy-day reserve of political authority in its national capital, would it be a nuisance to have a separate arena of politicians with futures as well as pasts?

Is it really for the better that Canada’s Senate is composed mainly of individuals with illustrious resumes rather than one with a few with illustrious ambitions?

Jonathan Bernstein recalls that the US Senate is often effective as well as powerful because many of its leaders have the audacity—and the means—to pursue the presidency:

“In fact, as the political scientist Nelson W. Polsby used to argue, much of the way the Senate works can be seen in terms of the number of senators who act with at least one eye on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a well-known cliché that when senators look in the mirror, they see a president – and it’s a cliché well-rooted in fact. I counted at least 28 senators from the 99th Senate (1985-1986) who at some point either actively ran for the presidency, were vice-presidential nominees, or who came close to a White House run. If we add V.P. short-listers, my count for the 104th Senate (1995-1996) reaches 31 national candidates or almost-candidates.”

In Canada’s national politics, leadership change is a cramped bipolar trap.

You’ll succeed Stephen Harper by being a competent team player in his Cabinet or by being an effective opposition leader in the House of Commons. The only other way that would work is to leave Ottawa and come back a few elections later, after a being a celebrity lawyer or banker.

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