Whatever happens with Senate reform in Canada, Washington is no model

Mar 30th, 2010 | By | Category: In Brief
Anti-prorogation parade in much-hated Canadian city: we need a reformed Senate that is more not less democratic than what we have now. Photo: WMW.

Anti-prorogation parade in much-hated Canadian city: we need a reformed Senate that is more not less democratic than what we have now. Photo: WMW.

The Canadian Press reports that the “Harper government is trying, for the fourth time in four years, to impose eight-year term limits on the Senate … Legislation introduced Monday [March 29, 2010] would limit senators to a single, non-renewable term and would apply to all senators appointed since October 2008.”

On an earlier theory, this is just one step in a “step-by-step” approach to Senate reform, apparently still breathing despite the Conservative minority government’s ultimate orgy of old-fashioned Senate appointments (which has now given us slightly more Conservative than Liberal senators, plus a handful of none-of-the-aboves). But some degree of apparent intermittent commitment to serious Senate reform in Canada has been one of the few redeeming features of the Harper regime in Ottawa, in our view. And (though very few are paying any attention, of course) we continue to support even the eight-year-term-limit step.

At the same time, watching the role of the already “elected, equal, and effective” Senate in Washington over the past year or so (and especially in the past few months) has made clear just how foolish it would be to slavishly imitate the current American model, in any altogether serious wave of democratic Senate reform in Canada at last.

There was some instructive discussion on the PBS News Hour last night, eg, on the host of dysfunctionalities in the current US upper house that have prompted President Obama’s recent so-called “recess appointments … to fill 15 vacant administrative posts that have been long-delayed by the Senate.” This is just one way in which the US Senate has become the captive of “a process where a minority is trying to clog up the works” (to borrow some language from Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute).

More and more, it seems from up here in the land of ice and snow (well in some years at any rate), the US Senate is appearing as an essentially anti-democratic institution, that gives various minorities — geographic, ideological, social and economic, and on and on — more and more power to thwart any constructive drive to have public institutions serve the interests of democratic majorities.

We do need in Canada a more (not less) democratic reformed Senate that both provides better regional representation in Ottawa and helps offset the increasingly overweening power of the Prime Minister’s Office. But it is impossible for Canadians to ignore American politics. And the recent behaviour of the US Senate is full of warnings about roads down which we do not want to travel. (Exactly equal provincial representation would be one big mistake here. But there are more than a few other tragic flaws worth avoiding too.)

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  1. Beautifully written and, In my opinion, completely correct. Im hoping one day soon Americans will embrace a more Canadian-esk style of govering. What is happening in the US is a break from all things sane and logical. The gov’t seems to be breaking.

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