Thursday, November 05, 2009

Senate salaries - and other trivialities that Peter Stoffer is studying

There's a lot of idiocy to comment on these days in Canadian political life, and I'm too busy with work to deal with it all. But Nova Scotia NDP MP Peter Stoffer's "revelation" of what 27 new Conservative Senate appointees will cost in salaries and expenses if they serve their full term falls firmly in the category of pot-calling-the-kettle-black on the "wasting taxpayer dollars" front. All Senators - Liberal, Conservative, NDP - are paid out of taxpayer dollars. As are MPs. As are their staffs. As is the entire freaking bureaucracy. This is not news. And until we have Senate reform that is accepted by both the federal government and the provinces, I'd rather that the upper house not sit completely vacant, unable to carry out its responsibilities or represent the provinces it is supposed to serve. Moreover, assuming that days spent sitting in the upper chamber is the only thing that Senators do as part of their jobs is a classic example of setting up a straw-man argument.

Canadian Press, which wrote the non-story, at least isn't wasting taxpayer dollars by writing it. CBC, which decided to cover this non-announcement and waste time on it, did. So did Peter Stoffer, who clearly thinks this is how his time as a Member of Parliament (and the time of his taxpayer-paid staff) should be spent, also wasted taxpayer dollars preparing this media release.

If you want Senate reform, that's fine. But let's not pretend that whatever configuration a revamped upper house assumes will not also entail the spending of taxpayer dollars on salaries and expenses.

And let's also not pretend - even among NDP voters - that until the House of Commons moves to some sort of proportional representation system, that there aren't large swaths of the population that are extremely relieved that the Senate can slow down legislation rammed through a "majority" government elected with 39-43% of the popular vote.

ETA: In other conversations, I've been having, it's been pointed out to me that the NDP isn't in favour of Senate reform, but of complete abolition of the upper house. In that case, I will retract /some/ of what I've said about hypocrisy - but only in so far as it pertains to the cost savings of complete abolition. But let me make two other points here. First, I think the Senate serves useful functions. It does initiate legislation, and it does provide an important corrective to the wording/phrasing of bills. This is particularly important because often legislation is rushed through the House to serve highly partisan aims. Without having a reformed electoral system for the House of Commons, it's also the only check that we have on the false majority governments of the day. And I, for one, would be quite concerned about eliminating the upper house without reforming the lower one.

But my bigger concern is the way that Stoffer has chosen to go after the Senate. If the NDP has principled objections to the role of the Senate or the manner of its appointment, it should tackle them directly. Using the "government is too expensive" line feeds into a very nasty discourse, usually used by the right wing, about trying to eliminate all sorts of government programs and salaries/benefits for public officials. While the NDP may take issue with how certain spending is conducted, I don't think they'd be happy to see public health care eliminated on the basis of what doctors (or even better, nurses) will earn in their lifetime. Nor would they argue in favour of its abolition on the basis of what 27 Conservative citizens of Alberta could potentially cost the health care system over their lifetimes.

Or perhaps they would. But it's a dangerous tactic to start down the path of "government officials/programs are too expensive" argument. Therein lies building massive public support for deep cuts to most of the social programs that the NDP holds dear (as they should!)

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At 10:30 pm, Blogger Robert said...

BS NDP Senators aren't paid out of the taxpayers money because their aren't any. The NDP kicks any member who takes a Senator position out of the Party because they stand for something.

Don't let the facts get in your way though.

At 11:03 pm, Blogger Matt said...

For a short time, there was an independent NDP senator. What, precisely, the party stands for by maintaining its ideological purity, rather than working for practical change from within, is beyond me.

In any case, that's not the point of the post - all Senators, even in a revamped, elected body, will still draw salaries and expenses from the public purse. And so they should, if they are fulfilling an important role in our governance.

At 11:15 pm, Blogger Robert said...

Just like they were fulfilling an important role in the provinces 100 years ago? Wait a minute the provinces got rid of their Senates and never looked back. Seems like we don't need them and the NDP are on the right track.

At 5:29 pm, Anonymous Maurice said...

I don't totally disagree with your point, Matt, but perhaps what Stoffer was trying to do is point out Harper's hypocrisy -- he being so against the senate as it is, yet turning around and trying to stack the deck while he can.


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