This week Yukon real estate salesman-turned-legislator Dan Lang and 42 of his fellow Conservative senators made history in Canada. With neither debate nor forewarning, they called a snap vote and defeated a bill passed by the elected House of Commons. The last time the Senate killed a Commons bill was in 1925. At that time, the British prime minister still chose our governor general, we still flew a version of the British flag and our troops still fought under British command.
The Senate is an anomaly of Canadian politics. Born of the 19th century, when men in power were suspicious of the rabble, its purpose is to balance one-man-one-vote democracy with the “sober second thought” of an upper house of landed gentlemen, modeled on the British House of Lords. It remains a requirement today that a senator must own land.
During the 20th century, as Canadian democracy matured, it came to be understood that as an unelected body the Senate could ruminate, debate, and pontificate, but couldn’t really kill legislation that originated in the House of Commons. For these services, senators receive an annual stipend of $132,300, plus a few perks, like 64 round trips anywhere in Canada, plus a $20,000 travel allowance. They can keep the job till they’re 75, or retire at 55, in either case with a very generous pension.
Though not previously in the bill-killing business, the Red Chamber could, and did, make its power felt. Senators amended bills, sent them back for further debate, held them up in committees, and generally got in the way of the democratic process, much to the chagrin of many Canadians. One of the Senate’s most vocal critics was Stephen Harper. As a Reform MP he once said “Canadians are ashamed the prime minister continues the disgraceful, undemocratic appointment of undemocratic Liberals to the undemocratic Senate to pass all too often undemocratic legislation.”
During the 2006 federal election Harper’s website proclaimed, “A Conservative government will not appoint to the Senate anyone who does not have a mandate from the people.” Of course, he didn’t say what people. No doubt Lang has a mandate from the Yukon’s Conservative establishment, each and every one of them a person, and the same surely applies to the other 34 Conservatives Harper has appointed to the Senate.
One of the quirks of our parliamentary system is that the prime minister has the power to hold bills until he’s ready to present them to the Senate. Harper did just that with C-311, the Climate Change Accountability Act, holding it for 10 months, until a day when a lot of Liberal senators were absent.
Moved by the New Democrats, C-311 would have been Canada’s only federal climate change legislation. It had been debated at length in Commons, and had passed first and second reading. It called for cuts to greenhouse gas emissions to 80 per cent below 1990 levels by 2050. Passed by a majority of MPs, it reflected broad public sentiment. According to a 2009 Harris Decima poll, 73 per cent of Canadians believe that current policy on global warming doesn’t go far enough.
Challenged on the unprecedented wielding of senatorial power Lang replied that the legislation was “irresponsible,” because it would have cost jobs and harmed the economy. Isn’t it great to know someone’s watching over us? A majority of Canadians want action on global warming, a majority of our elected representatives debated and passed a bill giving it to us and then, just in the nick of time, Senator Lang stepped in and saved us from acting irresponsibly. Whew!
The superior judgment demonstrated by the Conservative senators in overriding the irresponsible will of both Parliament and the people is all the more remarkable since it was achieved without a moment of study or a word of debate. No wonder senators don’t come cheap.
On the other hand, it does seem at least a wee bit irresponsible not to address climate change at all. The Yukon’s great glaciers are melting. Sea levels are rising. Each new study presents a darker picture of the consequences of inaction. At the same time studies commissioned by the Pembina Institute and the Suzuki Foundation demonstrate that re-tooling for sustainability will be far better for the economy than ravaging the landscape for oil.
Canadians know we need to act decisively on greenhouse gases. This spring Parliament took action on our behalf. Harper, with the help of Lang and the other 42, decided we were wrong and saved us from the consequences of rash democracy. This is exactly what the founding fathers of the Dominion of Canada had in mind when they designed the Senate to keep a watchful eye on the Commons.
Gee, thank-you, Mr. Harper. Thank-you, Mr. Lang. Rest assured, we won’t forget this.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.