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, October 13, 2016

Want your Senate to answer to you or be ‘independent’?

Canadians are sensitive to the corruptive power of hot patriotic rhetoric in American politics. We’re unmoved by flag-waving braggarts. Instead, we’re soft on a sedative: the proposition that our decision-makers serve us best, ever more intelligently, when we’re not in their face.

An extra measure of independence for legislators and public executives is presented to us as time-tested good housekeeping—a virtue that sets Canada above the more tactile and demanding politics to the south.

The Americans inherited the slave industry and we embedded in our political culture a British constitution of limited democracy and the good citizen’s general willingness to go along. 

Yet, any morning, in every public institution, from the PMO down to every crown agency and regional government outpost, those who hold power are reminded in little, unpleasant ways that they hold that power at our pleasure. Their unease about their professional mortality is palliated directly by obsessive market surveys, focus groups, and waves of fetching press gallery spinners, bureaucratic neologisms, and incomprehensible ‘accountability’ data dumps.

Also, there’s the confusing verbiage of our constitutional monarchy—a magical system of government that hides in every legal statute who exactly is the boss. On the outside, popular public intellectuals also write papers shoring up the credibility of independent decision-making and the impossibility of improving on the democratic reforms secured in the 1980s.

 A House Undivided: Making Senate Independence Work by former Senators Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal is a classic, bringing nuts-and-bolts authenticity to the task of trying to organize Justin Trudeau’s new Senate of 105 un-elected, free-thinkers into a workable legislative assembly.  

There will be, they proposed to the Public Policy Form, weekly Senate caucuses of the four regional power blocks that formed British North America back in 1867. To give Justin Trudeau greater latitude in guessing who would best represent these regions, the age limit of 30 and the property minimum of $4,000 for Senate appointments will be eliminated. Necessarily, the PM’s freshman Senate existentialists will need to meet regularly “in conference” to sort out their differences with the less sober, rather harried elected politicians from the people’s House of Commons.

(The Senate’s own reform committee outdid Kirby and Segal by recommending that the Senate allow their debates to be televised. Idle masochistic Canadians surely can’t be satisfied watching only unaccountable US Senators indifferent in what they think.)

Some sandboxes should be for the children or sent to the museum of civilization.

Trying to make a Canadian law-making institution less offensive by reforming its appointment procedures and business practices is, at best, a sincere waste of time.

Placing our upper house beyond electoral redress by the people has not, as Victorian authoritarians told us, led to more “sober second-thought.” The Senate is illegitimate today because, time and again, we’ve seen that informed adults voting are superior guarantors of durable progress than organizations of aloof worthies.

Yes, too much democracy—via plebiscites, recall of legislators, and too frequent elections—could drive us into a ditch. And with that concern very much in mind, the US constitution evolved a democratic balance: elections every two years for the people’s assembly and every six years for its Senate. They accepted that scrambling for money and voter approval shouldn’t go on constantly. They didn’t go so far, however, as to eliminate elections for the US Senate altogether.

Michael Kirby and Hugh Segal were superior Canadian senators. And they are listened to in Ottawa today. Lyndon Johnson, Ted Kennedy, Robert Taft, and Evert Dirksen, however, made political history, and did so, in large part, because they could win big elections and scare presidents.

Either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected shortly; and neither will be subdued by The Guardian or The Globe or the UN. To govern, however, the winner must regularly secure majorities and super-majorities in a separately elected US Senate.

Will Justin Trudeau’s government ever be subdued or driven off course by the Senators Justin Trudeau appoints to the Senate? Against that test, our $90-million-plus Senate is more bling-bling than a check on the awesome power of the PMO.

Democracy’s catch-22: for an effective Senate to be independent of the PM of the day, its Senators must first be empowered by being elected and, along with the PM, obliged to answer regularly to the people.

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