Friday, September 08, 2006

Another election threat?

While I would be hard pressed to find anything on which to agree with Steve Harper, I do share a basic view that the Canadian Senate needs to be reformed.

His appearance before a Senate committee was surely intended as political showmanship, although Harper does have a valid case. The current method of selecting senators, modeled after the British House of Lords, is arcane and patently undemocratic. That the term of a senator is age-limited (75 years of age) as opposed to time-limited is, at the very least, questionable.

What we're not getting is the full picture.

Harper's current proposal is to limit the term of senators to eight years. That's just the start, according to Harper, who says he will introduce legislation to have the Senate elected.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is warning Canada's appointed senators that they'll pay a political price with Canadians if they stand in the way of his plans for an elected Senate.

Those plans, the subject of an historic appearance by a prime minister at a Senate committee hearing yesterday, could see voters casting ballots for senators by the next federal election, Harper said.


It was evident Harper had a message of some kind to deliver to the Senate. He requested the appearance — the first by a prime minister before a Senate committee. The Senate is examining a bill, introduced by the government, to limit the terms of senators to eight years. Harper called this the first stage of his Senate reform plans. The second stage will come this fall when he introduces a bill in the Commons to have national elections of senators to fill those eight-year terms as vacancies come up. As of Nov. 1, there will be nine vacancies and Harper says he won't fill any of them until the reform process is under way.
Except for the fact that, despite prior assurances to the contrary, Harper filled a Senate seat by appointing Michael Fortier within days of being sworn in, without an election.

What is not clear at this point is how Harper plans on framing legislation which will have senators elected. The obvious method would be to use the amending formula in Part V, section 38 of The Constitutional Act, 1982.

Just how unlikely that will be however, is made evident by Harper's combativeness when appearing before the Senate committee reviewing current legislation.

With the weakest minority government in Canadian history, Harper cannot afford to gamble by prying open the Constitution and expect resolutions from both the Commons and the Senate and then approval of 7 of 10 provinces. Nor is he likely to put the question to referendum.

What is likely is a much more dishonest approach: Legislation will allow provinces to hold elections of senators and the Prime Minister would be legally bound to recommend those elected individuals to the Governor-General for appointment to the Senate. Senate appointments would meet the letter of constutional law even though the actual process is changed.

The problem is, it's Senate reform via the back door and it will do little to change the effectiveness of the body itself. Whether better or worse, the Australian Senate has much more power and has the advantage of being elected through proportional representation.

That isn't going to happen. Given Harper's propensity to complain that the existing Senate is stacked against him, a senate elected through proportional representation, from which increased power would flow, would probably be far worse.

The problem goes well beyond Harper. Any changes made to the structure and formation of either house of parliament changes the way Canadians will be governed. That kind of decision is too important to leave soley in the hands of politicians of any stripe. Determination and alteration of the style and substance of government is the responsibility and right of the population through direct democracy.

Any change to the Senate should be put to the voters in a clear, direct question.

And, now we get the threat of an election from Harper if he doesn't get his way. Just three weeks ago he issued an election threat if his $480 million gift to the Bush White House softwood lumber deal doesn't receive approval in Parliament.

What Harper is really trying to do is find an issue on which to call an election and blame somebody else for it; to avoid punishment at the polls for calling an election he so desperately wants but which most Canadians would rather not endure. Create the crisis - shift the blame - provide the solution.

How about those hospital wait times, Steve?

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