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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

the senate is just the start. canada now needs some serious constitutional reform.

Brad Wall’s governing Saskatchewan Party has announced that they will be introducing a Bill into that province’s legislature allowing for the election of Senators in that province. Similar elections were held in Alberta in 1989, 1998 and 2004, with only two Senators having been appointed – Stan Waters in 1990 and Bert Brown in 2007. Before I continue, let me preface my comments by stating that it boggles my mind that in 2008 – the 21st century – a 19th century style appointed Upper House of Parliament continues to exist. It also continues to boggle my mind that the Liberal Party of Canada – by their lack of action on an issue of democracy – continues to support the current-Senate style.

With 14 vacant seats in the 105 member Senate (and 29 expected by the end of 2009), the movement towards electing Senators is only one move that I believe should be taken towards reforming the Upper House.

Though some politicians are afraid of the reopening Canadian constitutional debates (something that the Federal Liberals are happy to call for now that they are in opposition), I think it is something that is needed, whether it be now or a decade from now. One only has to read Section 23 of the Constitution Act to see just how politics was done in 1867:

23: Qualifications of Senator

(1) He shall be of the full age of Thirty Years:

(2) He shall be either a natural-born Subject of the Queen, or a Subject of the or a Subject of the Queen naturalized by an Act of the Parliament of Great Britain, or of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or of the Legislature of One of the Provinces of Upper Canada, Lower Canada, Canada, Nova Scotia, or New Brunswick, before the Union, or of the Parliament of Canada after the Union

(3) He shall be legally or equitably seised as of Freehold for his own Use and Benefit of Lands or Tenements held in Free and Common Socage, or seised or possessed for his own Use and Benefit of Lands or Tenements held in Franc-alleu or in Roture, within the Province for which he is appointed, of the Value of Four thousand Dollars, over and above all Rents, Dues, Debts, Charges, Mortgages, and Incumbrances due or payable out of or charged on or affecting the same:

(4) His Real and Personal Property shall be together worth Four thousand Dollars over and above his Debts and Liabilities:

(5) He shall be resident in the Province for which he is appointed:

(6) In the Case of Quebec he shall have his Real Property Qualification in the Electoral Division for which he is appointed, or shall be resident in that Division.

First of all, the idea that qualifications to being appointed to the Senate include owning property and being over the age of Thirty hurts my brain. What implications will this have for those running in Senate elections? As someone who is under Thirty Years old and doesn't hold over four thousand dollars of personal property, would I be excluded from participating as a candidate?

I support the move by Stephen Harper's Conservatives to allow for more elected Senators, but there is a broader discussion that is needed to be had. Does the constitution need to be reopened? Absolutely. The Canadian Constitution is a living document. This discussion should include discussing what purpose the Senate actually serves. Will an Upper House of elected politicians be any more effective than an Upper House of appointed politicians? (a cursory glance at the House of Commons would certainly have most Canadians asking this question). Is abolishing the Senate a more effective use of taxpayers dollars? Is there really a need for an Upper House?

How about the effectiveness of our current Parliamentary Democratic system of government? Would a change in the electoral system good enough? What sense does it make to still have the British Monarch as our Head of State? Does the Governor General actually serve a modern purpose? I'm not going to oppose current reforms, but as someone who sees an array of problems in the current political system, I'm having a hard time believing that anything less than a complete overhaul is actually going to make a real difference in the long run.

UPDATE: For more thoughts on the Senate debate, check out AGRDT, ES, and Wells.

16 comments:

foottothefire said...

you washed over the Alberta senate thing a little too quick there, Dave.
What passed for an election of Senate candidates here was as big a fraud as any ever perpetrated in the name of democracy.
If we're going to start promoting elected senate, lets insure the candidates do NOT belong to the party system.
Haven't Alberta Tories rigged enough "democracy"?

daveberta said...

Yeah, I guess I kind of did.

I should note that I spoiled my Senate election ballot in 2004 for the reason that not one candidate on that list even came close to representing my political views.

daveberta said...

Also, past Senate elections have been handled by Elections Alberta, rather than Elections Canada. Should this be changed? And if it will be partisan, should it be provincial or federal parties? I'm up for the idea of a non-partisan senate. Less control for the parties and the executive branch.

Anonymous said...

Now that Saskatchewan has taken Alberta's lead in supporting Senate reform, maybe Alberta will take Saskatchewan's lead in supporting fixed election dates.

Koby said...

I can imagine a worse idea.

Being unable to “reform” the Senate in one fell swoop, Harper has proposed electing effective Senators piece meal. Under the Conservative plan, new senators would be elected and would be limited to serving out an 8 year term. The problem is that people already in the senate would be free to serve until the age of 75. On the face of it the result of such nonsense would be either to transform an unelected political body with no power into a largely unelected political body with real political power, or commit Canadians to the farcical and expensive act of electing people to office who hold no real power.

An effective senate is an afront to democracy.

One of the main purposes of the Canadian senate and the US senate, which were both modeled after the British system, was check the will of the common people.

The other purpose of the senate in both the US and Canada, of course, was to provide regional representation. Smaller states and Provinces wanted their interests protected before agreeing to form a Federation. For example, the Southern States wanted to make sure the Northern States, were most Americans lived in and live now, would not be able to abolish slavery. Yes the US senate has done a lot of good over the years.

Some believe that the regions need more say and an “equal” “effective” and “elected” senate is the best way of achieving a balance between population centers in Eastern Canada and the rest of us. The problem is two fold. First such an argument rests on a false contrast; seats in the House of Commons are supposed to be assigned on basis of population, but in actuality that is not the case. For example, PEI has a population of 135,851 and has 4 MPs and people in the riding of Oak Ridges Markham has a population of 169, 642 obviously only has 1 MP. In other words, a vote in Oak Ridges Markham has less the 5th the value of a vote cast in Charlottetown. Assuming that no government would ever dare take away seats from a particular province or region, the government would have to add a ton more seats to make it have way equal. If the government would commit to an MP for every 70,000 people the new numbers would break down as follows. Ontario would gain 67 seats, Quebec 32, BC 23, Alberta 19, and Manitoba, Nova Scotia 2 each. All total, a 145 seats should be added, most of those in urban areas. Even then there would still be outliers. PEI, and the territories would still be over represented. The second reason is that comparing province to province is a perverse misnomer. It is comparing apples to oranges. The people living in Canada’s less populated provinces (hello again PEI) have a mechanism to assure that regional concerns are addressed; it is called province jurisdiction and provincial representation. By the very nature of living in a province with a small population, the 135,851 people in PEI have plenty of ways of addressing regional concerns that are not available to, for example, the 169, 642 residents of Oak Ridges Markham. All in all, comparing province to province is a perverse misnomer. A province is no more or less than the people that make up that province. Giving the 135,851 in PEI the power to determine everything under provincial jurisdiction, provincial representation and 4 MPs well all the while given 169, 642 Oak Ridges Markham one MP is bad enough as it is. Giving the 135,851 people in PEI the same number of “effective” senators, as per the American Triple E Senate model, as 12.1 million Ontarians is beyond stupid and grossly undemocratic.

Needless to say, if push comes to shove, abolishing the senate is far more preferable to senate Reform. No province has a second chamber, most abolished them, and they are doing just fine. Furthermore there are numerous examples of unicameral nation states. New Zealand, Denmark, Finland, Israel, Sweden, Iceland, Liechtenstein, South Korea and Portugal are all unicameral.

Anonymous said...

koby,
While mathemtically accurate, your comment is politically and stategically incorrect. The "per capita MP" ratio is meaningless.

Strategically, a political party wishing to gain power could lift the proverbial big fat middle finger to PEI without any consequence, if in doing so they were pandering to Ontario and/or Quebec.

Substitute Alberta for PEI, and - depending on the party you favour - Quebec for Ontatio, and you have our current situation.

Gauntlet said...

"I'm having a hard time believing that anything less than a complete overhaul is actually going to make a real difference in the long run."

But your suggested solutions all point toward eliminating bodies that don't actually do anything. That's not going to make a real difference in the long run, either, is it?

Or are you talking about just the money wasted?

Maestro said...

Dave, you raise some interesting points, in some sense, I agree that an updating of the Senate's requirements should be done, but on the wider issue of whether or not Senators should be elected, I think that's where we're differing. If I recall correctly, I believe you attended the conference given by Senator Tardif on the topic, which highlighted the need for sober second thought away from the political games that plague the Commons, as well as the historical importance of the kind of representation one gets from the Senate.

Koby said...

"While mathemtically accurate, your comment is politically and stategically incorrect. The "per capita MP" ratio is meaningless.

Strategically, a political party wishing to gain power could lift the proverbial big fat middle finger to PEI without any consequence, if in doing so they were pandering to Ontario and/or Quebec."

They would have a much easier time giving the big fat middle finger to any number of ridings and unlike this PEI has a huge number of resources at its disposal simply by virtue of being a province. Oh and by the way the population of the 7 smallest provinces together with the 3 territories have the same population as the 416 and 905 put together but twice the seats. In terms of federal resources available it is not even close.

Koby said...

I think I said the 7 smallest. I meant the 6 smallest. I think I also said twice the seats. I meant twice as many people per seat.

daveberta said...

Maestro, I don't think I was at Senator Tardif's conference, but I've heard that argument many times in the past. I would never disparage those appointed Senators who take their jobs with seriousness and responsibility, but I question the legitimacy of an entire house of parliament filled with appointees. It is sober second thought from a group of politics elites who for a large part were appointed due to political connections (though one could argue that the House of Commons isn't much better). I think that in 2008 we are past the point of having an appointed Senate give sober second thought to the will of an elected lower house. It's an issue of democracy.

daveberta said...

Koby - I'd be happy to give the senate a clear swoop and have all the appointed members removed.

In terms of the Senate providing provincial representation in Ottawa, I don't buy this argument. First of all, provincial boundaries are artificially created, and second as a federation, Canadians elect provincial Premier's who have more political power than Senators. Do we want to move towards a more centralized form of federalism in Canada, with Senators representing provinces nationally rather than Premiers? Also, I don't think it would be very democratic for PEI to have the same amount of representation in the Senate as Ontario.

Of course, I'm not totally opposed to abolishing the Upper House. In it's current form, most Canadians probably wouldn't notice much of a difference.

daveberta said...

Koby - I'd be happy to give the senate a clear swoop and have all the appointed members removed.

In terms of the Senate providing provincial representation in Ottawa, I don't buy this argument. First of all, provincial boundaries are artificially created, and second as a federation, Canadians elect provincial Premier's who have more political power than Senators. Do we want to move towards a more centralized form of federalism in Canada, with Senators representing provinces nationally rather than Premiers? Also, I don't think it would be very democratic for PEI to have the same amount of representation in the Senate as Ontario.

Of course, I'm not totally opposed to abolishing the Upper House. In it's current form, most Canadians probably wouldn't notice much of a difference.

Koby said...

Get rid of all the aristocratic anti democratic residue – Queen and Senate.

There no reason for Canada to keep a body whose main reason for being was to provide an “elitist check” on the will of "commoners".

That said, status quo, with the senate having no real power, is way better than "effective" senate.

rj said...

I think the idea of a Triple-E senate is something that the Reform Party got right. Back in the 1980s they were the only ones actually calling for real democratic reform in Canada and it is one of the only things they got right.

Holly Stick said...

I have lost any enthusiasm for an elected Senate or for getting rid of the Senate. Look at the Harper government - why would we need more elections of more jerks who never had a real job and have no understanding of the concerns of most Canadians?

While the Harper government is using their Committees for Dummies Guide to deliberately screw up committees and hamper government, the Senators are actually doing their jobs, reviewing the badly written legislation passed by MPs who didn't bother to read before voting.

Right now the Senate as is, is more useful to Canadians than the Senate of your fantasies. Maybe reforms would be good, but don't knock the wall down until you find out how much of the building it actually supports.

For instance, check out Senator Elaine McCoy's blog; an Alberta Progressive Conservative who is not part of the Harperite Conservative caucus.

http://www.albertasenator.ca/hullab