Harper`s cute Senate Bill C-43 .. and other whimsical news .. as 2006 staggers to its unusual end

Dec 18th, 2006 | By Randall White | Category: Key Current Issues

Stephen Harper has conceivably earned some form of distinction in the eclectic annals of Canadian political history, with his introduction of Bill C-43 at the close of the fall sitting of the 39th Parliament of Canada – somewhat cutely called “An Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate.”

His opponents are sceptical about how this will play in yet another federal election. And there have been various rude election noises lately. The London Review of Books has also been making rude noises about Conrad Black. A Vancouver conference has reminded the West that “more than two-thirds of the federal voting power” in Canada is still back East. Then there’s aboriginal rights, “ideological affinity” between Harper and Bush, and the rights of Maher Arar in the USA. In the true north as elsewhere 2006 has been an unusual year. And it’s not quite over yet.

Two cheers for Stephen Harper’s new Canadian Senate reform trick …

Bill C-43‘s fate in the current House of Commons of Canada is uncertain at best. But it does take a fresh lunge at the constitutional mists in which the Canadian future continues to wander. (Or at least at avoiding them, while still making some progress on issues of democratic reform.) And its clever technique could also be applied, e.g., to the quietly bubbling problem of the office of governor general as Canada’s “de facto head of state.”

The crux of this latest step in Stephen Harper’s brave and bold New Step-by-Step Strategy of Canadian Senate Reform is more or less as follows: The current “19th century relic” of the Senate of Canada is appointed by the prime minister of the day. Among other things, it would be nice if Senators were popularly elected instead. But strictly speaking that would require a so-called major constitutional amendment.

For the time being at least, Canadians are still not ready to go back to trying to handle the truth of major constitutional reform (which will have to include such congenitally annoying things as the Quebecois nation and aboriginal rights, along with Senate reform, and so forth, as in the ultimately failed Charlottetown Accord of 1992). But, until Canadians are ready again, since the prime minister already appoints the Senators, why doesn’t he just hold “consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate” – through an ordinary Act of Parliament? And then he can appoint the Senators who win the elections – er, consultations.

There is a lot of quibbling that can be done here, and of course it is being done. Canadian politicians, and many other Canadians too, love to quibble, about everything. But Mr. Harper’s “Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate” certainly qualifies as a pretty clever trick, which can reasonably claim some higher-minded purpose (whatever else might also be true). Stephen Harper may be wrong about almost everything else. But he has hit one nail on the head here. His opponents ought to take note.

In some circles, this is not a common opinion. According to CTV News, e.g., Prime Minister Harper ” tabled a bill aimed at giving Canadians more of a say in who gets elected to the upper house … (It) will allow us to move to a new era in democracy. Imagine that, after a century and a half, democracy will finally come to the Senate of Canada,’ Harper told … a caucus meeting.”

But “critics have suggested that Canadians are more concerned with environmental issues and health care than Senate reform … The Senate is so far down the list of concerns of Canadians and their families,’ CTV News analyst Anne McLellan, a former Liberal deputy prime minister, told Mike Duffy Live. If you ask them whether we should we change the Senate of course they say yes – the numbers are overwhelming across the country, they’re over 90 per cent. But that doesn’t mean it’s a vote determining issue. When you ask them to rank their issues, the top 15 to 20 don’t mention Senate reform.’”

An editorial in the Edmonton Sun, on the other hand, presents a different point of view: “anything would be more democratic than the current method employed to put friends of the governing party in the upper chamber … And allowing interested Canadians who qualify to sit in the Senate a chance to run for vacant positions in the upper chamber, and have other Canadians pass judgment on them in a plebiscite, with the results going to the prime minister, who would, the idea goes, make Senate appointments based on the results of the referendum, is a far better solution than anything proposed by the Liberals during their last 13-year run governing Canada. Which was nothing.”

Here in this corner we would in general rather see Anne McLellan from Alberta in office than Jason Kenney from Alberta. But in the particular case of Mr. Harper’s new “Act to provide for consultations with electors on their preferences for appointments to the Senate” we also think the Edmonton Sun is closer to the truth of the higher Canadian public interest. (And, by the way, if we are finally going to be electing senators this way for the time being – which no doubt is still very far from certain – why not elect governor generals in some similar way, from candidates nominated by the federal and provincial legislatures, say, or something like that? And finally bring some democracy to Rideau Hall too.)

A few more notes on Santa’s big sack of toys …

1. NEW ELECTION OVER THE COMING HARPER-FLAHERTY BUDGET?

The Canadian federal Parliament has already broken up for its annual year-end holidays (and consultations with the folks back home of course). As it was leaving, Prime Minister Harper himself finally seemed to be saying that he and his precarious minority government weren’t looking for any fresh election soon. But both Stephane Dion of the Liberals and the BQ’s Gilles Duceppe also appeared to be raising some flags about the budget that Mr. Harper’s Conservatives are scheduled to bring down early enough in the new year.

What they seem to be saying is that if Mr. Harper and his finance minister Jim Flaherty think that any kind of remotely aggressive right-wing neo-con budget is going to get through Parliament over the next several months, just because the Liberals and the Bloc are afraid of another election too soon, they had better think again. So who knows? Maybe there could be a spring 2007 federal election – turning around just how many financial angels you can or ought to try to fit on the head of an Ottawa pin. Even if the Canadian people finally do wind up telling the Canadian politicians pretty much what they have already told them, in the elections of 2004 and 2006.

2. CONRAD BLACK – “ON MY WAY TO THE PRISON CELL WHERE I BELONG”

There are probably still a few too many Canadians who worry too much about what the old ruling classes back in the United Kingdom think. And former Canadian media tycoon Conrad Black used to be one of them. So all those who have been enjoying his current legal difficulties in the USA etc a little too much will probably also enjoy British writer John Lanchester’s take on Tom Bower’s Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, in the December 14 issue of the London Review of Books.

Among other things, Lanchester confesses that he actually knows “a few people who … met the Blacks in their pomp” in London (England of course, not Ontario), and “it’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never heard a good thing said about them.” But he does give the husband some credit for his “wholly distinctive prose style … on show in a furious email Black wrote to Tom Bower, protesting that Bower’s forthcoming book about Lord and Lady Black was going to be a heartwarming story of two sleazy, spivvy, contemptible people, who enjoyed a fraudulent and unjust elevation; were exposed, and ground to powder in a just system, have been ostracised; and largely impoverished, and that I am on my way to the prison cell where I belong.’ One can quibble with the punctuation, but as a summary of Conrad and Lady Black: Dancing on the Edge, that paraphrase is accurate to the point of clairvoyance.”

3. MEANWHILE, BACK IN THE COLONIES, EAST IS EAST … ETC

On December 14 Don Cayo at the Vancouver Sun reported that: “Economic power in Canada has begun to – and will irrevocably continue to – shift westward, but political power has not and will not … That was one of the colder dashes of water splashed into a generally upbeat discussion on Wednesday concerning the rise of Canada’s New West’ – Alberta, B.C. and, as many speakers noted but the conference title did not, Saskatchewan.”

Moreover, according to former BC provincial Liberal leader Gordon Gibson, Canada has traditionally “built its prosperity on three strengths that have fed each other … rich resources, skilled workers who have made up a small but significant percentage of a global elite, and available capital … Today, with ever-growing legions of highly skilled workers in almost every part of the world, and with mobile capital available almost everywhere, two of these three advantages have been eroded…. So now it is only Canada’s resources that give us a leg up.”

This “is bad news for Ontario and Quebec, where benefits of our human and financial capital have been concentrated, and good news for the West, which is home to most of the resources that are ever more ardently sought by the world … Politically, however, more than two-thirds of the federal voting power lies east of the Manitoba-Ontario border … And, given the propensity of Canadian politicians to move money to people through transfer payments rather than move people to where the money can be made … this political imbalance will continue to matter a lot.”

Usually, we think highly of what Mr. Gibson has to say. But in this case something seems not quite right. Like so much Western regionalist thinking, it assumes that “Ontario and Quebec” are some kind of political and economic unit. Yet, for the great majority, “Ontario” is one thing (increasingly very closely integrated with the adjacent US Great Lakes and Northeast fragments of the North American economy), and “Quebec” is something different again. Many new regional twists and turns in the Canadian confederation no doubt do lie ahead. And the West is rising indeed. But our current guess is that the real big picture will prove much more intriguing than Mr. Gibson suggests. (There are even more Chinese Canadians in Toronto, e.g., than there are in Vancouver. Alberta is the only province with a really significant chunk of the most crucial energy resources. And the “global elite” is changing every day. Just ask Conrad Black.)

4. ABORIGINAL RIGHTS, HARPER, BUSH, AND MAHER ARAR IN THE USA

Quietly simmering aboriginal grievances have been a sub-text virtually throughout 2006 in Canada. And, among various other things, this also seems poised to make its own contribution to Canadian regional conflict over the next while.

With only two weeks left in the year, the Six Nations Iroquois land claim protest that has been unsettling Caledonia, Ontario for close to a year now is still going strong, under the increasing protection of the provincial forces of law and order. And the Harper government will apparently not be pressing ahead, for the time being, with the struggle over individual and group rights on aboriginal reserves across the country.

Meanwhile, according to a report in the Globe and Mail, a “top U.S. State Department official” has “praised the important ideological affinity’ between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, indicating that this sharing of minds is giving a boost to Canada-U.S. relations.” The boost, however, is not helping Maher Arar (the Canadian-Syrian dual citizen recently cleared of terrorism charges in Canada) get off the US terrorist “watch list.”

The US ambassador to Canada has implied that Arar will remain on the list as a result of information beyond the untruths somehow told to US officials by the RCMP. According to a report in the Washington Post: “That the United States would have the gall to keep Maher on a watch list, implying that he poses a threat to this country, is outrageous,’ said one of Arar’s attorneys, Maria LaHood, a lawyer with the Center for Constitutional Rights in New York … This administration is unwilling to admit its mistakes and still tries to conceal them,’ she said.”

Whatever the truth may be here, like so much else this year, in several different ways, it all finally makes you wonder just what is really going on in the world today?

Happy New Year in any case. There seems a very good chance that 2007 will be at least as unusual as 2006.

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