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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Attacking the Defence

Cherniak has posted a Defence of the Senate in response to my post below that I find pretty unconvincing. So, consider this an offensive against this particular defence. You may want to go over and read his post to follow the debate.

Note that I don't propose to have "the" answer to Senate reform in Canada. The critique of Martin is in his failure to galvanize the considerable resources at his disposal to make any attempt.

This will only fuel those who think I only like to concern myself with criticizing and picking apart the actions of the Prime Minister, and will never be satisfied with anything. Let's put that broader opinion aside. On this issue, I can only say that trying to galvanize any support to attempt reform is my major priority, rather than craft my perfect alternative [maybe if someone appointed you to the Senate you'd have the necessary spare time to devote to uncovering the perfect solution? -ed.] What I find frustrating is inertia on this issue and the lackadaisical acceptance of the status quo. Give me the leaders who attempt something with vision, rather than those too timid to try anything when the circumstance cries out for reform, either modification or abolishment.

On to the substantive critique of Cherniak's defence:

(1) Jason states in his opening paragraph that the "best way to stifle democracy" is to increase the accountability of those in government by electing the officials elections. That's a paradoxical (and almost laughable) argument today.

Take a look at this "Forum of the World's Senates" report: Of the world's 67 two-chamber parliaments, 39 have a second chamber where all members are elected, and many others have at least some type of mixed system. Only 14 have solely appointed Senates: Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cambodia, Fiji (Isles), Grenada, Jamaica, Jordan, Lesotho, Saint Lucia, Trinidad and Tobago, and of course Canada and the UK. The report notes that this is mainly because these countries are going through a process of democratization or are simply too small to justify two-tier elections. The United Kingdom faces its own unique difficulties, but at least Tony Blair has placed reform of the House of Lords on his agenda.

Do not attack an elected Senate as somehow anti-democratic or undermining of the House of Commons. It is, in fact, the model favoured by the majority of the world.

(2) Jason then assumes that Canada's appointed Senators fulfill a valuable function because they can differentiate between "popular and necessary" versus "popular and badly considered" legislation, giving the House time to sober up by bogging the poorer legislation down.

On what basis does he derive such faith? Are not the potential problems on this front starkly obvious, especially if a Conservative government were elected and the Senate (the vast majority of whom were appointed by Liberals) then attempted to slow things down? Today's Senators are neither representative nor responsible to anyone. If they perform an effective review function, it is despite the current Senate's structure, not because of it.

(3) Jason has an affinity for the political partisan. "We should recognize that they are giving up their lives to work behind the scenes to do what they think is right for society," he writes. "90% of the time, these people really do deserve some recognition for their efforts." I dare say most Canadians would disagree. The Senate is widely recognized as THE plum appointed position in a Parliamentary system full of such appointments. The wide discretion available to the PM in appointing ensures that often the appointment is yielded as a partisan tool - moving MPs to the Senate to clear the way for favoured nominations is only one possible example.

(4) Jason then goes on to say that it doesn't matter if these people are paid by "political parties or directly through government coffers", completely missing the general criticism that we don't think taxpayers SHOULD be paying these people! Political parties at least face their own operational constraints on who they hire. The Senate's budget is immensely larger than money directed to the parties for such purpose. The democratic system may depend on party workers and volunteers, but that doesn't justify a second House to reward a select few with excessive and cushiony salaries for life. At a time when the Canadian voter is increasingly disillusioned with a perceived political class, why not take a step toward some semblance of accountability for our Parliamentarians in the "other house".

(5) To rebut the challenges involved in changing the Senate by concluding, "well, no institution is perfect" does not rebut the argument that the Senate as is remains a relative disgrace. The question should not be whether it performs a useful function, but whether it is performing that function effectively and efficiently. If it is not, and most don't think it is, even if we can point to a few benefits to its existence, surely Canadians are right to demand reforms to such an embarrassing relic of the mid-1800s. After all, it is our government, and we are footing the bill.

6 Comments:

Blogger Jason Cherniak said...

I suppose the problem I have with this in the end is that I don't see what advantage there is to having two effective chambers. I don't mind keeping the current version - inefficiencies and all - for those few occassions when it is necessary. Meanwhile, as I failed to mention, the Senate continues to produce positive committee reports on Health Care, Same-sex Marriage and marijuana.

5:30 PM  
Blogger Canadian Perasma said...

James: I could not have said it any better! Spot on!

Jason: So...taking your comment into consideration, does that mean ineffective is the new "good" and effective is bad? How would any politican be able to sell that in light of say..the Sponsorship Scandal (sorry but it's applicable in this case too)? That's absurd.

7:17 PM  
Anonymous The Dilettante said...

Jason makes a few good and a few bad points. The worst among them is the idea that the Senate should exist to reward backroom partisan hacks like him. I think we can all agree that the inherent ridiculousness of that position needs no rebuttal.

What he fails to identify, and what is central to any defense of the Senate, is the problematic relationship between democracy and governing. Do we want a completely "democratic" government, in which we vote on everything from the dog catcher to the Prime Minister and everyone in a position of public authority is accountable to the voters? Or do we want a system in which things get done - some bad, some good - and Senators are freed from the shackles of the election cycle and free to do their work without worrying about the consequences they might face?

Jason highlights the strong committee work done by the Senate over the past few years, and it's an important point. Who would have expected a chamber comprised largely of elderly white males to produce reports supporting the decriminalization of marijuana (and not opposing its legalization) and same-sex marriage? Not I, but because they had the time to closely examine the facts of the matter and didn't have to worry about the vagaries of public opinion, they made the right decisions.

The question, then, is as follows. In evaluating the utility of the Canadian Senate, which do we value more: democracy or effective government? I myself am not obsessed with democracy; our current crop of elected officials are hardly anything to crow about, so one suspects that an elected Senate would be no better. Democracy isn't, in my opinion, the chief ideal to which we should be aspiring. But that's open for debate, and I suspect that on this forum - a decidedly right-of-centre one - my tepid feelings about the primacy of democracy will be challenged.

Nevertheless, there's your articulate, intelligent, and informed defense of the Senate. Discuss.

11:34 PM  
Blogger Canadian Perasma said...

Oh Dilettane, why did you play those cards?

Card #1: Absolute democracy vs. representative democracy.

This argument comes up all the time and it's old and obstructionist. We live in Canada, where we have approximately 32 million people and of those approximately 22 million are eligible electors. If you look at the Elections Canada website showing the election cycle, you'll see there is no way we could do national elections on a regular basis. Therefore, we recognize our representatives (MPs and Senators) have to provide for us a proxy vote. No reasonable person would argue with that.

This ties into your central argument of the problems democracy produces for effective governance or Card #2. There will never be a perfectly democratic society, ok fine. However, our goal should be to strive as best we can to minimize the wrong done by non-democratic actions by the government. Our current election system retards the growth of our political system from being one that would be more effective and more democratic at the same time. Proponents of the status quo always seem to put these two always into opposition with one another. It isn't a question of which we value more: democracy or effectiveness. It's a question of getting an effective democracy that we can value.

PR is one tool to accomplish this. A triple-E (based on PR only) Senate would reinforce this. Abolition of the Senate would take away the checks and balances it could better provide under PR reform. You take away some of the "fear" of the election cycle for elected officials by putting them closer in touch with the electorate.

And what good are all these studies and reports if the House of Commons is not bound to do something with them? Is the Senate just there to influence public opinion and act as a stall for legislation at taxpayer expense? Kind of an expensive plug, no? Give them a purpose, give us accountability.

It seems some of you are either so scared of change or so in love with the benefits of the current system could bring you that you've forgotten there are other Canadians out there that deserve to be heard. That in and of itself is not progressive but more indicitive of a lust for keeping one's station in society over another's plight. That is a more right-wing trait if I ever saw one.

2:54 AM  
Blogger James MacDuff said...

To the Dilletante, as a final comment on this issue.

I think the substance of my critique is that the Senate is neither democratic NOR effective. In its reform, I'm open to a myriad of alternatives, just not the outdated status quo.

I'm as surprised as you about the Senate reports on decriminalization of marijuana and same-sex marriage. But I certainly don't think they arrived at the "right decisions" [though I personally agreed with them] because of the process by which they were appointed. Again, when the Senate proves effective, it is usually a pleasant surprise. Why do we accept such low expectations for the other main federal house?

As for this forum being "decidely right-of-centre"... an interesting observation. I wonder. More on that down the road.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Mike McNair said...

"Democracy isn't, in my opinion, the chief ideal to which we should be aspiring. But that's open for debate, and I suspect that on this forum - a decidedly right-of-centre one - my tepid feelings about the primacy of democracy will be challenged."

Right-of-centre? All my ideas of a political spectrum go out the window if advocating democracy = DECIDELY right-of-centre.

9:00 PM  

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