Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Senate Reform and Unilateralism - or - Lessons from the Three Little Pigs

In re-introducing his Senate Reform Bill, Stephen Harper has hinted that if the Liberal-dominated Senate again tries to block his proposed reforms - an elected Senate which serves 8-year terms - he will support Jack Layton's proposal that the Senate be abolished altogether.

Nice try, Stephen (aka the Big Bad Wolf), but the Senators, senile though you think they may be, are no fools on this front. They are well aware that as much as you may huff and puff, your threats cannot be backed up with force, and the Upper House cannot be blown down so easily. Another Prime Minister, bolder and better versed in constitutional affairs than the current occupant of that office, also once tried to change the shape of the Senate unilaterally. His name was Pierre Trudeau, and in 1978-1979, his Bill C-60 would have transformed the Senate into the House of the Federation, a body which would have been jointly elected by the House of Commons and the provincial legislatures. But it was not to be, as the Supreme Court ruled (in Reference Re Legislative Authority of Parliament to Alter or Replace the Senate (1980) 1 S.C.R. 54) that the federal government cannot alone alter the fundamental nature of the Senate.

Any changes to the Senate are going to require the consent of the provincial legislatures - and right now a number of key players, Ontario and Quebec at the forefront, are strenuously opposed to Harper's reforms. All of Harper's bluster (and that of Jack Layton about a national referendum) is mere posturing at this point. I rather suspect that Harper is aware that pushing this issue beyond legislative attempts to bully the Senate will entail proposing much broader-ranging constitutional reforms if Ontario and Quebec are going to consider changing this key central body. I don't think he has the stomach for that.

For the record, I'm not fundamentally opposed to reforming the Senate, per se. But I don't think that this should be a matter of a half-assed legislative bill. The Senate was originally created to be a counter-point to the House of Commons that provided a greater voice for regions. While the House seats are (more-or-less) divided on the basis of representation by population, the Senate is regionally weighted - with about 24 seats per region (plus 6 for Nfld and one for each territory). This regional weighting does not pose a major problem for provinces that are underrepresented by population, because as an appointed body with more limited powers, it is not seen as having the same "democratic legitimacy" as the House. And, generally speaking, it does not act as if this were the case. The Senate provides an important function of legislative review, but very rarely blocks a bill altogether.

An elected Senate, on the other hand, would rightly feel more empowered to block legislation and play a more decisive role in the legislative process. The question that must be faced squarely by Canadians when deciding whether to reform this body is whether they like the idea of an institution whose membership is determined by region rather than by rep-by-pop having this much power. This is talking about a major shift in terms of how Canada is governed, and the extent to which regions are given a more explicit voice in federal institutions. This is not a change to be imposed lightly, and provinces such as Ontario (and the Senators who held up the first version of this bill) are right to raise a red flag about this issue.

On a related note, it appears that the House of Commons bill to increase the number of seats allocated to Ontario, BC and Alberta is also being reintroduced. For my thoughts on this bill, see this earlier post. I'm curious - does anyone else think that Harper's decision to prorogue Parliament in September, and then reintroduce a whole whack of bills is proving to be a frightful waste of Parliament's resources? Frankly, I am shocked and appalled at this frivolous use of taxpayer dollars, to have bills being re-debated and hours of the MP's and Senator's time wasted so that Harper could engage in his bit of Parliamentary gamesmanship (/close dripping sarcasm tag>). Someone who has derided Parliamentary waste in the past should be more careful about opening himself up to the same criticism.

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