The other day we were drawn into a conversation with a clever guy about an elected Canadian Senate.
Now, before you start mouthing off — “Maggie, this weirdo actually chooses to talk about the Senate! Who talks about the Senate?” — give us a second to work this into something interesting.
There’s still some appetite in Canada for a reformed Senate.
Some think it might be better to eliminate the patronage and have the upper house elected.
Now, that’s got some problems.
That type of reform has Constitutional amendment written all over it — and with the Canadian economy starting to falter the last thing the nation needs is to distract itself with an acrimonious power struggle between the emerging New Money West and the stagnant Old Money East.
And that’s what Senate reform is all about. A power grab.
But the ramifications might be bigger than most Canadians realize.
So, let’s bring a couple of the obvious issues surrounding an elected Senate into sharper focus.
You might remember, Stephen Harper’s Tackling Violent Crime Act was being reviewed by Canada’s upper house.
The bill was sent to the Senate chamber on November 29. It received first and second reading on December 12. It was sent to committee for legal and constitutional review.
Then, like Parliament, the Senate took a six-week-long Christmas recess before returning to work.
Harper demanded the Senate pass the bill by February 29. He declared the law’s Senate passage a confidence motion (it passed on the 28th).
The problem is that Parliament has no authority to order the Senate to cut short its review of the legislation. It should not have been called a confidence motion.
But Harper is enamoured with the US Republican system of government.
There are plenty of signs of this, not the least of which is his decision to set a US-style fixed election date.
That is, he willingly relinquished the government’s ability to call an election, which has a long history in British parliamentary government.
Having given up that lever, he now wants to go to the polls. He senses that Canadian support for his party is wavering.
So he’s wriggling.
This concocted Senate showdown was one of several confidence matters on the government’s agenda — the Afghan mission and the budget are the other two. Now the Liberal-sponsored Registered Education Savings Plan tax break is being used by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty as a hammer to bring down the government.
Harper’s team has been tossing around these ultimatums because he wants the government to fall.
And Harper can’t do it himself because he gave up his ability to call elections.
The economy is faltering. Things are so precarious after Conservative tax breaks and the war in Afghanistan that the RESP tax refund could plunge Canada back into a deficit position.
All this signals that Canada’s economy is in danger. And Canadians know it.
A recent Nanos poll suggests that confidence in the Canadian economy has plunged to 24 per cent from 49 per cent just three months ago.
And that’s bad news for Harper.
Worse for Harper, support is dropping in Quebec and Ontario.
His government has already cut taxes to the bone and spent its surplus wad of cash.
He’s got few tools left to coax a few percentage points out of the electorate.
If the economy worsens he’s on the hook.
Harper believes it is better to pull the plug now, before things get really bad.
And so, he concocted Senate showdown, and other confidence matters, to provoke an election. So far, the Opposition Liberals haven’t taken the bait.
But the Senate issue raises some interesting questions.
That clever guy we were talking with raised a question that was very simple. And troubling.
If a Canadian Senate is elected, who governs the country in the case of a stalemate?
Take this crime bill. If the Senate refused to pass it, who would have broken the tie?
The prime minister?
The Senate leader?
The Queen, through the governor general? And how is that more democratic?
Of course, Australia has an elected senate.
Its system is called, by some, the Washminster form of government. That’s a nod to its mix of British-style parliamentary traditions and the US federal system.
Its senate, like ours, has equal representation from each Australian state. It has a rotational election system, like the US Congress.
And its senate wields almost as much clout as its parliament. This can cause some pretty interesting inter-house politics.
And, perhaps as a result, party discipline is almost absolute in Australia. That is, the party is more concerned with its members’ views than those of its rival.
Which is pretty easy in Australia — for the most part, it is a two-party state.
Here, there are four well-established parties.
Which makes the possibility of a deadlocked government much more likely. And more complicated to resolve.
So, once again, how do you manage such a system?
We suggest the easiest solution — the one Harper might champion — could be a third elected Canadian executive branch.
Something established to break ties in the other two elected houses.
Call it the Canadian presidency.
But Harper’s a big fan of the US system.
And he likes to shift the nation towards his goals in baby steps.
We’ve seen it with the recent Unborn Victims of Crime Act, which many argue is the beginning of a new abortion debate in Canada; with Heritage’s hidden tax clause enabling back-door censorship of movies; and with his government’s Republican-like focus on mandatory prison sentences and an enhanced focus on jailing Canadians, among others.
At the very least, Canadians would do well to ask themselves what the guy’s real agenda is. (RM)