NDP (and Liberals) could support Harper’s Bill S-8 on Senate elections, in exchange for provincial representation concept that makes sense for Quebec

Mar 2nd, 2011 | By | Category: In Brief

One of three Dana (Woodward?) posters for the 2008 Canadian federal election — “a take from Shepard Fairey's Obama poster” of the same vintage. Everywhere in 2011, it seems, times have changed? Photo: Amanda Woodward.

Flipping through the rather slender electronic file on the federal NDP motion for “a national referendum on abolishing the Senate” — slated for debate in the Canadian House of Commons today, after some procedural wrangling yesterday — forces you to dwell on just how beleaguered the cause of progress in Ottawa has become lately.

The concept is to include a Senate abolition referendum on the ballot for the next federal election. And: “According to NDP leader Jack Layton, ‘We’ve got to deal with fundamentals of democracy in the next election because you cannot trust Stephen Harper with our democratic institutions.’”

On the theoretical surface, all this does focus on a key current issue in Canadian federal politics, and makes a certain obvious kind of sense. As Chantal Hébert explains in today’s Toronto Star: “The fact that a regionally distorted body made up of patronage appointees holds the power to thwart the legislative will of the elected House of Commons has long contributed to Canada’s democratic deficit … In this Parliament, the recently acquired Conservative majority in the Senate has been used to kill or delay bills passed by an opposition majority in the House.”

Yet as Ms. Hébert herself, Robert Silver in the Globe and Mail, and the National Post editorial board make clear (among many others elsewhere no doubt), the Layton NDP proposal for a Senate abolition referendum makes no practical sense at all. (Just for starters, even if such a referendum were to result in a Canada-wide vote in favour — which all extant opinion polls on the subject suggest is unlikely — doing the deed would require a constitutional amendment, for which the requisite degree of provincial support would almost certainly not be forthcoming.)

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It is a sign of one of the several weaknesses of the current democratic reform postures of both the Layton New Democrats and the Ignatieff Liberals, I think, that the National Post editorial board actually has an at least half-more-convincing position on the increasingly urgent practical question of Senate democratization.  It notes that the Harper minority government’s current Bill S-8 “would allow provinces to hold elections for nominees to the federal upper chamber, who would then be recommended for appointment to the governor-general by the prime minister.”

And (sensibly enough, I also think myself) the Post editorial Board urges that passing Bill S-8 into law “would be a first step to transforming the Senate into a truly effective and representative governing body, and bringing Canadian democracy into the 21st century.”

At the same time, there is another seminal Achilles’ heel in the Post editorial board position that finally reduces it as well to an impractical exercise in trying to create a pie-in-the-sky version of Canada, doomed to never see the light of day in anyone’s real world of politics. As part of its wind-up to urging Bill S-8 as an effective first step, the board argues that: “Instead of abolishing the Canadian Senate, we should reform it according to the well-known ‘Triple-E’ mantra — making it equal in its regional distribution, elected in its membership, and effective in its legislative role.”

There may be a bit of room for common sense here in the phrase “equal in its regional distribution.” But if this is taken to mean “equal provincial representation,” as the original so-called “Triple E” reformers intended, in our current political circumstances Quebec will never agree to this kind of proposal — for its own good enough reasons. And in similar circumstances (I would bet a lot of money on, myself at any rate) it is almost certainly the case too that Ontario would side with Quebec — once again making the requisite provincial agreement for a constitutional amendment impossible.

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So … to make an all-too-long story very short, why don’t both the Layton New Democrats and the Ignatieff Liberals come up with a fresh Senate democratization proposal, that repairs the current Achilles’ heel of the Triple E concept — and points toward some altogether practical light at the end of the tunnel?

Eg, they could both agree to support the Harper government’s current Bill S-8, to achieve some initial progress on the “elected” E, in exchange for a parallel bill (or, more likely no doubt, amendment to Bill S-8) on a future scheme of provincial representation in an elected Senate that would make sense for Quebec (to achieve some initial progress on the “equal” E).

What would such a scheme of provincial representation look like, you may well ask? No doubt as well, a committee of some sort would have to be struck to inquire into the matter in depth. But just as an example, several years ago a fairly wise and experienced observer of the Canadian Senate reform scene proposed one version of a provincial representation scheme that might work for Quebec, on the Globe and Mail website. And, thanks to the wonders of the world wide web, this proposal is still available for consultation today — just as a point of departure.

The main point for the moment is that some serious movement in this kind of direction would at least bring the current debate about Senate reform and the fundamentals of democracy in Canada today out of the altogether impractical fairy-tale world in which it is now stuck — in all three Canada-wide parties that currently have seats in Parliament. And that would set us on a road to some kind of serious approach to reforming the now so patently obsolete (and even ridiculous) upper house of the 1867 confederation, that could actually work in the very end.

Randall White is the author of a number of books on Canadian history and politics, including Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada, and Ontario Since 1985.

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