Ottawa Citizen - January 16, 2009
By Colin Kenny
Those of us who aren’t philosophers usually don’t like wrestling with difficult concepts. Most of us prefer homilies, stereotypes and myths. After all, complexity can lead to confusion, confusion can lead to anxiety . . . it’s a very slippery slope.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper is smart enough to understand that simplicity sells. That means being seen with your family at hockey rinks, reducing taxes, inveighing against the Senate and arguing that cutting cultural programs is good for Canadians because culture is all about fat cats who attend fancy galas.
Okay, okay, that last cheap shot against culture did backfire. But, in politics, simple usually works – particularly if you can incorporate villains into your mythology.
On the issue of Senate reform, the sleazy senators are the villains. They’re unelected, they’re often old, and every now and then one of them sneaks off to Mexico instead of attending committee meetings. The Upper Chamber has been a boon for cartoonists for many decades, so why wouldn’t it serve as a perfect target for Stephen Harper?
I don’t want to get too close to the slippery slope of hard thought, but allow me to argue an outrageous proposition: that at an institution, Canada’s appointed Senate as I have observed it up close for the last 25 years poses far less of a problem to democratic government in North America than does (a) Canada’s House of Commons, or (b) the U.S. Congress (which, of course, contains an elected Senate).
Let’s be clear, I am not trying to put Canada’s Senate on a pedestal as a perfect political institution. I don’t know of any such institution. I am simply arguing that the Commons and the U.S. Congress are both in far greater need of repair than the Canadian Senate. They are certainly both less cost-effective, and both come far closer to being sham democracies than Canadians and Americans deserve.
First, Canada’s Senate. The Senate cost Canadians $2.42 each last year. And what did citizens each get for their half-a-latte? During the election campaign, Dr. Thomas Axworthy, a respected academic and former chief of staff to Pierre Elliott Trudeau, noted that the United States has all kinds of private and public think tanks but that Canada has few: “perhaps the single most effective ‘think tank’ in Canada has been the Senate.”
Dr. Axworthy cited the late Senator David Croll’s committee report on poverty in Canada, which led to significant government policy reforms. He referred to the Senate Committee on Health – with Liberal Michael Kirby as chair and Conservative Marjorie LeBreton as deputy chair – and its blockbuster 2002 report on Canada’s health care system.
He mentioned the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence – which for several years has worked in bipartisan harmony producing report after report on vital issues such as airport security, the weaknesses of our armed forces, the holes in our coastal defence, and many, many more.
These are the kinds of issues that the Commons doesn’t have time to delve into. The Commons focuses on issues of the moment that win or lose votes. It’s like the stock market. Too many investors have focused on quick company profits in recent years so they can turn a quick buck. CEOs responded by focusing on short-term gains. Well, somebody has to focus on the long-term health of Canada as a society, just the way CEOs in recent years should have been paying more attention to the long-term health of their companies. Senate committees focus on finding long-term solutions to deep-seated problems that the Commons often skims over.
Should the Senate be elected? Maybe. But do we really want a duplicate House of Commons whose members primarily think about what will sell to the public today because that’s where the votes are?
If the Senate can be improved, I’m all for it. But my argument here is that if Prime Minister Harper wants a reconstructed Senate, all he needs to do is win the support of seven provinces with a combined population of 50 percent of Canada’s population, and then get a constitutional amendment approved by the House of Commons.
The appointed Senate couldn’t block such a bill – the most it could do is delay it for six months, and if the bill did get provincial and Commons approval, you can be sure there would be no delay.
The Senate did block a government bill in the last Parliament to limit senators to two four-year terms – with good reason. There must be more to the Prime Minister’s vision of Senate reform than restricting terms (which are not restricted in the Commons). If he wants to put forth that vision – instead of trying to sneak these kinds of restrictions past us – he should do so, and involve the provinces, territories, all members of Parliament and the public in the debate.
What he is trying to do now is creep in the back door with dodgy little pokes at the Senate’s independence. Is it right – or even legal – for politicians to dole out rewards in exchange for supporting this kind of subtrifuge? Interestingly, Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien is currently charged with offering an opponent money and a possible political appointment for dropping out of the city’s last mayoralty race. Are these similar issues?
Last year, annoyed at the independent spirit and non-partisan approach of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence, Mr. Harper had his Senate leader replace the vice-chair with a person who said his primary job was to ensure that the Committee didn’t criticize the government. Ah, democracy.
Which brings us to the House of Commons and the American Congress, both allegedly mighty paragons of democracy.
But how democratic is the House of Commons, really? Prime Ministers whose parties win 40 percent of the electoral vote can often win a majority government, meaning that they can become virtual dictators of national policy for four years or more when 60 percent of the electorate said they shouldn’t hold office? In his recent book Two Cheers for Minority Government, Peter H. Russell has this to say about governments than win less than 50 percent of the popular vote:
“I call such governments ‘false’ majority governments because their leaders, once in power, have a tendency to act as if they have a popular mandate from the people when in fact they do not . . . False majority governments can only happen because our current electoral system does not reward parties with seats in numbers proportional to their share of the popular vote.”
How “democratic” is that? And how democratic is it when the Harper government simply shuts down Commons committees when witnesses threaten to say something that the government doesn’t like. Federal governments for years have been promising more independent committees – the kind the pre-Harper Senate has always been so proud of – but so far no serious reform has been forthcoming, because dictatorship is so much more fun.
The Canadian House of Commons badly needs reforming. After all, the Commons is the primary engine of our democracy, and Senate reform should take a back seat until the Commons begins to work as it should.
As for all those Canadians who would prefer to see a republican system similar to what they have in the United States, all I can say is that we don’t want to even think about copying the United States until the U.S. system starts responding to the needs of individual voters rather than the lobbyists and special interests that keep buying congressional favour.
The U.S. Congress has been called “the best Congress lobbyist money can buy,’ with good reason. The number of Washington lobbyists has doubled since 2000, to more that 34,000. It costs most candidates for Congress at least a million dollars to run a successful campaign, and he who pays the piper calls the tune.
Honest members of congress will tell you they expend more resources on trying to raise money than they do on trying to help run the country.
The U.S. Congress and the Canadian House of Commons are badly in need of reform. The Canadian Senate? Maybe. But if you buy Stephen Harper’s argument that the Senate is really what is so terribly wrong on Parliament Hill, I have some swamp land to sell you.
[Colin Kenny was Chair of the Senate Committee on National Security and Defence in the last Parliament. He can be reached via email at email@example.com ]