Thursday, December 14, 2006

Need help sleeping?

Because I have just the thing to chase that nasty old insomnia away: my thoughts on Stephen Harper's proposed Senate reforms.

A hoary old joke has it that the most boring headline imaginable in an American newspaper is "Worthwhile Canadian Initiative." I assume that this is because American newspaper headline writers are unfamiliar with the concepts of "Stephen Harper," "the Canadian Senate" and "Canadian constitutional negotiations." So what we have here is Stephen Harper proposing Canadian Senate reform, a worthwhile ideal that will require, at some point, constitutional negotiations. It's like a perfect storm of stupefaction, a vortex of ennui, a tornado of torpor.

The only thing that could make the whole subject more boring still would be...the uninformed chatterings of a blogger. So I'm more than happy to oblige.

First of all, I should say that this is a subject on which Jay and I disagree, just as we disagree on whether or not the Toronto Blue Jays are a baseball team worthy of significant emotional investments and the degree to which it is accurate and reasonable to call Mark Steyn a fascist. Jay is of the opinion that our current upper house is just fine the way it is, and that introducing the dangerous opinions of the mob into its sober deliberations would lead to anarchy, gridlock and possibly cats and dogs living together. I believe that the current system is an absolutely ridiculous anachronism, and that the things the Senate does well-generally indepth study of topics important to the nation-can just as easily be done by Royal Commissions. So Stephen Harper's proposal to open up the current Senate to elections falls neatly between our respective positions.

I think that if we have to have a second house, and if it's vitally important that the provinces as a whole have representation in the Parliament, and if people who want proportional representation continue to refuse to go away, we might as well solve all of these issues at a stroke by electing senators in provincewide proportional elections. Keep the legislation curtailing the Senate's powers, give the Senators reasonably longish terms-say, two slates of five Senators from each provinces, each for an eight year term-and you have something that would satisfy me. Of course, I realize that this will never, ever happen, because 1) It would require a constitutional amendment, and 2) constitutional amendments are impossible in this screwed up country of ours.

But never mind what Ian Gray, Philosopher King, would do if put in charge of the Senate. What of what Harper is proposing? I lack my co-blogger's fear of democracy, so I've no problem with the idea of electing Senators per se. The issues I have with the plan, predictably enough, are generally of the line that it doesn't go far enough. In particular, I think Stephane Dion is right to point out that the biggest problem with the proposal is that it doesn't address the ludicrous regional imbalance of the Senate; I'm a Nova Scotian who enjoys tweaking Albertans, but there's no plausible justification for Nova Scotia having 10 Senators while Albertans have 6. Not actively appointing people Albertans don't want to those six seats will allay regional grievances with the Senate, but it won't end them.

Andrew Coyne has advanced the interesting theory that Harper is counting on these small changes to start a chain reaction that results in a reformed Senate. Aside from the fact that I hope Harper isn't playing a Mulroney-esque game of dice with the Constitution, I still can't see this working. You can put in a term limit. You can appoint elected Senators. But you will never rejig the apportionment of seats, because the three Maritime provinces and Quebec form a bloc against it: it will never be in any of their interests to agree to fewer Senators, which would be necessary for any kind of reapportionment.

Secondly, I find it very hard to believe, as Coyne apparently does, that people are ever going to be "roused to action" by anything at all pertaining to the Canadian Senate, the world's most somnolent deliberative body. This was one of the weirder things about Reform; with all of the important things for Westerners to complain about in the 1990 era Canadian federation, they were exercised about the Senate?

That said, provided that the prerogatives of the Senate aren't expanded, I can't see what's wrong with Harper's plan as a start. This marks the second time in two days that I've supported the Harper conservatives on the blog. I'd be worried, if I weren't so sleepy...


Blogger Jay said...

Ian is so wrong on this it makes dogs and cats want to live together. More later.

4:54 PM  
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9:26 AM  

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