Thursday, March 24, 2005

Will we EVER see ANY Senate Reform?

Short answer: Certainly not under these Liberals.

Long answer: Today Paul Martin announced the appointment of 9 new Senators, with 7 more to come in "the next few weeks". Predictably, the list is being hawked as "...a choice of outstanding Canadians with a record of accomplishments." Well that's a relief, because in the Senate they are unlikely to find innumerable avenues to further their records.

On a serious note, I don't mean to demean some of our new Senators, though it is a shame to see the likes of Romeo Dallaire lumped in with political hacks like Art Eggleton. And I do owe Jim Cowan some thanks for writing a letter to the President of Dalhousie on behalf of the Domus in our losing cause.

The fault to be complained of here lies squarely with our Prime Minister, who has proven (yet again) to be a most indecisive and politically unimaginative leader. Here was an unprecedented opportunity - 16 of the 105 seats in our unelected upper chamber sat empty as Paul Martin delayed - to change the way Senators were appointed from its current farce.

But according to the article linked above, Martin "...has said he agrees the Senate should ultimately be overhauled to make the institution more democratic, but that won't soon happen because it would require another wrenching round of constitutional negotiations." Bollocks. Under the present system, the appointments are to be made at the Prime Minister's sole discretion. Easily, easily, he could have ceded some of that power voluntarily and no one would have complained. He would have been applauded. His successor would by no means be bound to use the same format, but perhaps the establishment of convention would make such a deviation politically difficult.

We'll be another 25 years (at least!) before we see any attempt to re-open the constitution. To hide behind that excuse shows someone unwilling to tackle the system, likely because he can conceive of no alternative. "I would love to see it reformed," it says, "but for now I couldn't be bothered and would really like to reward some of the supporters who got me here."

Note that such a strategy doesn't necessarily mean appointing the 3 "elected" senators of Alberta, nor would it have required an entirely new election campaign (although these might represent the most desirable options). Martin could have consulted the Premiers of the various regions to publicly submit nominees for review. He might have established an explicit criteria for selection, or subjected Senators to some type of confirmation process. Heck, he could have refused to appoint anyone and saved the tax payers from paying some salaries! Instead, predictably, we get only the status quo: the whim of the Chief Executive. And out in the wilderness you can hear Preston Manning cry out - "Reform!".

Instead, we hear again how his staff was "...besieged by scores of requests for appointments from people who helped the prime minister during his two-decade-long bid for the Liberal leadership." Wonderful. Canadian democracy in all its glory. It is another area where our Prime Minister exposes himself as anything but bold and imaginative. In November 2003, Paul Martin accepted the leadership of the Liberal party with a great call for an era of the "politics of achievement". Words have rarely rung so empty. Attempting a new approach might have been messy, but doesn't "achievement" contemplate some sort of obstacle?

Alas. So strange to think, 13 years after the Charlottetown Accord, how close Canada was to some type of true democratic reform on the issue (see clauses 7 to 16). Maybe we'll be close again someday. Who can ever tell?


Blogger Jason Cherniak said...

I would agree with you if I thought we should have an effective Senate. I look at the US and see proof positive that the Senate should either provide a toothless second chomp at bills or be removed all together. How would Canada benefit by having an elected upper house that is unrepresentative of population?

12:56 PM  

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