Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Senate in the cross-hairs

From this morning's Globe - Harper would back Jack Layton's bid to have a referendum on the Senate (H/T National Newswatch).

His preference is for reform with elected members:

The idea was broached by NDP Leader Jack Layton on the weekend. Tory Senator Hugh Segal has also put forward the notion of a nationwide plebiscite.

If it came to the House, it would be hard not to support it,” a source told The Globe.

Sources were quick to add, however, that the Prime Minister's preferred route is to elect members of the Senate. Mr. Harper has already introduced a series of bills designed to overhaul the Senate.

( . . . )

“It's a 19th-century institution that has no place in a modern democracy in the 21st century,” Mr. Layton told his party's organizers on Sunday.

“It's undemocratic because [senators] are appointed by prime ministers who then are turfed out of office. But these senators end up leaving a long shadow of their continued presence in the legislative context.”

Would even a reformed, elected Senate serve any purpose? A few days ago I commented that I'd prefer to see the Senate remain, but only after major changes. Now I'm not so sure.

What exactly is the value of the Senate? It's an expensive rubber-stamp machine, and even more expensive when it deliberately holds up legislation for political purposes. Why do we need it?

* * * *

Related - Shocking editorial in the Star! One legislative chamber in Parliament is enough.

According to a parliamentary report "only four bills ... have actually been defeated (by the Senate) in the past several decades, with all of these defeats occurring in the 1990s." On issues where the Senate has tried to assert itself – free trade and GST – ultimately both happened anyway. The Senate holds committee hearings when Parliament is in session, and even has its own Question Period. Yet its proceedings are perfunctory. In sum, its accomplishments are insubstantial.

Its cost is not. For the 2005-06 fiscal year it cost $76,526,904 to run the Senate, a figure roughly equivalent to a sponsorship scandal each year. That is too high a price for work that culminated in nothing of substance – a cost which will remain year after year and likely increase with time. That money could obviously be better spent elsewhere, or maybe never collected in the first place.

( . . . )

Moreover, having a duplicative body would likely make it more than twice as cumbersome for laws to pass as they do now – promoting increased lobbying, horse-trading and government largesse. Cost would, of course, increase. The same parliamentary report states that "the cost of an elected Senate would likely be quadruple its present cost."

Quadruple the cost??? O.K. Let's have that referendum, Jack.


The Trusty Tory said...

Joanne, it'll come to you suddenly when you see me post once or twice over at my place...infinity dollars to you if you get it.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

I love puzzles!

Gabby in QC said...

According to Wiki:
“The English Parliament traces its origins to the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot. In 1066, William of Normandy brought a feudal system, where he sought the advice of a council of tenants-in-chief and ecclesiastics before making laws. In 1215, the tenants-in-chief secured the Magna Carta from King John, which established that the king may not levy or collect any taxes (except the feudal taxes to which they were hitherto accustomed), save with the consent of his royal council, which slowly developed into a parliament.”

As with many other questions, Mr. Layton is wrong. He is willing to discard a centuries-old institution, yet he foams at the mouth at the mere thought of changing a comma in the Canada Health Act, which received royal assent on April 1 (telling day!) 1984.

Rather than abolition of the Senate, what should be sought is its reform. Why should Canada, a country with a population ten times smaller than that of the US, have 105 senators to their 100? And appointed rather than elected?
BTW, the same argument holds for the numbers of their HofReps to our HoC: 435 to our 308.

What about the role of the senate?
“Examine and revise legislation, investigate national Canadian issues, represent regional, provincial and minority interests, [and be] watchdogs on government.”

All of the above to be done not as a means of obstruction or partisan politics, but as a true chamber of sober second thought.
Yes, perhaps I am dreaming ...

Anonymous said...

I agree with Gabby...but what's with the "sober" second thought??

I would reduce the Senate to about 75 members, with half elected by the population and the other half appointed by the provinces and federal governments of the day. Limit terms to 6 years and only 2 consecutive. The allocation of seats would be on a "regional basis".

Reduce the HofC to about 250 and set up my favorite STV system and make it national and not constrained by provincial boundaries (for another post)

Just got back from 3 weeks in Hawaii ... soooo nice Aloha

West Coast Teddi

Bruce Stewart said...

My goodness! $76M is too much? How little do you want to spend on a functioning country & system, anyway?

I am sick to death of this assumption that cutting the number of people in politics is the answer. It leads to even more executive control and ever more ignoring of the ridings and their citizens. Enough!

Your original impulse to reform the Senate, not abolish it, was the right one (see my comments yesterday).


Anonymous said...

CTV mentioned (Odd that the Globe did'nt) that this referendum would first have to be approved by...you guest it...the Senate...If this is correct, then it's going to take time to do anything constructive with this gang of Liberal dominated geezers.

I think the whole thing is a tag team effort by Harper and Layton (And the Latter being the ignitiator so the MSM can't yet again point at Harper being a "bully") to further embarrass and expose the Fib's stranglehold on the country...If it's only result for now is to wake up some of the sleeping sheeples, then so be it.

Joanne (True Blue) said...

Gabbi - All of the above to be done not as a means of obstruction or partisan politics, but as a true chamber of sober second thought.

You mean that they should actually do their job and serve Canadians? What a novel concept!

Teddi, I'm jealous.

Bruce, I had a peek at your essay. I hope to read it more thoroughly later. Thanks for your contribution.

Anon, I was wondering about that. It seems to me that's why Senate reform has been held up before - the Senate has to approve it. How do we get around this?

Joanne (True Blue) said...

CTV link here.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the link Joanne, there is another CTV report that's fresher being the one about the PM approving Jack...It does not mention the senate having to approve the referendum though...I thought I heard CTV newsnet say that this AM(?),,,Anyway there's also a poll at CTV.ca: "Reform it" and "abolish it" are both currently tied and "Do nothing" at 9% (About the same percentage that currently still support the Dions ;-) )

Joanne (True Blue) said...

lol! Anon, they should have a 'sit on your hands' option!!

Anonymous said...

Bruce ... the issue is for me is being "over governed" at all levels of government. In this day and age of communications surely 1 MP can represent more than 105000 people on average especially in the "big cities". We need to balance geographical and demographic considerations and increase the rep-by-pop factors.

I have 6 city council for 11000 people, school board, regional district, 1MLA for 50000, and an MP for 105000. With an elected senate that would be even more. I feel that I am over governed! double all the factors and pay/expense and I would be happy!

West Coast

Gabby in QC said...

"... but what's with the "sober" second thought??"

West Coast Teddi:
Are you saying senate deliberations would be better with generous servings of wine & spirits? ;-)

I find your suggestion for reforming the senate - 75 members & so on - a good one.
Also, I don't know exactly how many people each MP represents, but it is my understanding that some MPs represent as few as 45000 people, whereas others have much larger populations to represent. Why?

"What a novel concept!"
Joanne, I know, but I haven't stopped believing ... "hope springs eternal"

Anonymous said...

Gabby ... with a population of 31 million or more and 308 MPs it works out to be about 100000 to 105000 per riding but there is a +/- factor of 25% to account for very large ridings in the north and rural Canada. As I recall there are only 30-40000 people in the Yukon which has 1 seat.

As for "sober second thought" it has been said that instead of wine and spirits, geritol might be more appropriate!!


Gabby in QC said...

"it has been said that instead of wine and spirits, geritol might be more appropriate!!"

You may be right that geritol might be more appropriate for some senators, but chronological age is not the question.
Some serious "sober second thought" without the benefit of any kind of libations might prevent some poorly thought-out bills from getting through.

One minor example comes to mind: the Elections Act was recently amended, but as we saw during the Quebec byelections, a controversy arose regarding whether completely veiled women should be able to vote without providing visual identification.

Had more time and thorough study been given to the amendment, the controversy (created by a journalist’s bringing up the question of whether veiled voters should vote or not, BTW) might not have arisen.

Ryan R said...

I think that Layton is seriously persuing Senate abolishment 110%, but I think that this is mainly hardball politics by Stephen Harper.

Stephen Harper is sending a clear, and loud, message to the Liberal party, and to the Senate (which is overwhelmingly Liberal in make-up).

That message is this... "You have continued to hold up my attempts to reform the Senate. Well, if you continue to hold them up, then realize this... you will either be reformed, or you will be abolished. If you want to continue to exist at all, then it's time for you to accept the Senate reform bills."

Or, to put it more frankly, Stephen Harper is saying to the Senate... "Reform, or die".

I think that the Prime Minister's preferance is to reform the Senate, but failing that, he is willing to see them abolished entirely (and he's also willing to use the threat thereof to get the Senate to accept Senate reform bills).

Gayle said...

The fact you have so many different opinions on this subject should tell us something.

No one opposes senate reform (no, not even the liberals). The problem is that this must be done properly, with all information before Canadians. Canadians need to understand the potential constitutional ramifications of either abolishing or reforming the senate. Neither can be done without a constitutional amendment, so a referendum is not going to be the deciding factor in this.

At a minimum, it would seem wise to seek an opinion from a panel of constitutional experts.

I do not think Harper (nor Layton, for that matter) are really concerned about reform at this stage. It is all political maneuvering to drive the liberals nuts - and no doubt it will work.

That is not to say they are not genuine in their interest in reform, but so far all I have seen either leader do is political gymnastics. Nothing to date has addressed the actual steps needed in order to achieve senate reform. Perhaps that is because no one is really interested in opening up the constitution right now.

liberal supporter said...

I want a referendum on direct democracy.

I want to have a vote on each and every issue that is currently decided by the MPs and Senate.

Instead, I am only allowed to vote once every 4 years, to choose someone who then casts a long shadow, long after I do not want that MP in power.

Jack's argument is the same. He says the elected government chooses the Senators, and they continue to "cast a long shadow" after the elected government is gone.

If he wants to have a clean slate every election, so that previous elected governments have no "shadow", then I want a clean slate on each vote too, so that previously elected MPs cast no shadow.

I want to be able to vote on each issue that comes before the House. Technically possible, logistically messy, but if Jack wants to be free of the continuity provided by a Senate, then I want to be free of the continuity provided by the MPs.

Möbius said...

I want to be able to vote on each issue that comes before the House. Technically possible, logistically messy

If that newfangled "Internet" thing ever takes off, this might be possible.