Friday, November 19, 2010

C-311 Roundup

It took a couple of days for the media to catch up with the Cons' use of unelected senators to override the will of democratically-elected MPs. But now that it's started to notice, the Cons are taking plenty of fire for both definitively demolishing any pretense to wanting to do anything positive about the Senate, and reaching new lows in their disrespect for the will of Canadian voters.

Here's Craig McInnes:
As recently as three years ago, Harper argued it would be intolerable for unelected senators to defy elected members of Parliament.

It was a message that resonated with many Canadians, especially here in the West where disdain is particularly acute for the institution that many see as the ultimate symbol of patronage and pork-barrel politics.

That was before Harper abandoned his promise never to appoint a senator and stuffed the Senate full of his own yes-men and yes-women, before what used to be abhorrent became first tempting, then convenient.
What we have learned in the meantime is that Harper is not the reformer he pretended to be. He has no more interest than any prime minister before him in creating a Senate that has the ability to independently represent Canadians, that can, in fact, operate as a chamber of sober, second thought. What he wants and what he created by offering what are still among the juiciest patronage plums available is another partisan tool to do his bidding.
The Edmonton Journal editorial board:
The elected representatives of the Canadian people created this bill, debated it, voted on it and it passed. That it was then killed by an unelected body -- not delayed, not modified, not put over for more debate, but flat-out killed -- goes against the core principles of the movement that brought Stephen Harper to power.

The early Reformers split from the Progressive Conservative party for many complicated reasons. But one core grievance was always the democratic deficit.
With the Senate now controlled by

his party (thanks to the power of appointment), Harper had a chance to set a new precedent. He could have instructed his senators to advise and debate, but not block legislation passed by the House.

Instead, by having them kill a duly passed bill, he may well have made legitimate a whole new level of senatorial interference. For however the former Liberal senate majority may have slowed things down with assorted parliamentary moves, it never actually never voted down a piece of legislation.

The underlying principle is this: Democracy is not a cudgel to be wielded when the people don't pick you. It's a principle, a belief that the voters get the final say, whether you agree with them or not.
The Toronto Star editorial board:
Harper, who used to rail against Liberal senators second-guessing the work of the Commons, stoutly defends this act of parliamentary sabotage as a way to spare the country from legislation that “sets irresponsible targets . . . throwing hundreds of thousands and possibly millions of people out of work.”

In fact, the bill was largely aspirational in content, setting out long-range targets to reduce carbon emissions. It did not bind the hands of government, although it would have required regular reports to Parliament. In other words, this bill would have held the government to account. Not any more, thanks to the pre-emptory move by Conservative senators.
The Globe and Mail editorial board, making a point that's worth some further discussion:
The Conservative senators were fully entitled to vote against the Climate Change Accountability Act on Tuesday, but the power of the Senate to reject Commons bills should be limited, in the same way that the British House of Lords is restrained.
(In Britain), the solution was essentially to let the House of Commons pass a bill again in a subsequent session of Parliament, without further assent of the upper house – so that the Lords could significantly delay, but not definitively veto.

In Canada, an equivalent reform would require a constitutional amendment. Despite the understandable dread of “reopening the Constitution” ever since the Charlottetown Accord referendum of 1992, amendments have been passed in recent years, secularizing school systems in Quebec and Newfoundland. A constitutional change giving the Senate a suspending, not a final, veto ought to be equally uncontentious, being based on a widespread consensus of the supremacy of the House of Commons.
The Winnipeg Free Press editorial board:
Where Mr. Harper has been less consistent, however, is in his position on the Senate. He has, as Mr. Layton pointed out, always opposed it as an unelected and undemocratic institution that can thwart the will of the House of Commons on a whim. This week, Mr. Harper used his new majority in the Senate to thwart the will of the House of Commons because his party opposed the legislation in question, and invited Mr. Layton to join the Tories in reforming this unelected Senate.

But Senate reform, it seems, is merely a merry-go-round of hypocrisy, and no major political party appears willing to get off it. That's a pity, because an unelected Senate can be abused, but it cannot be truly useful or convincing as a chamber of sober second thought.
And finally, John Ivison:
Stephen Harper used to campaign on the phrase “promise made, promise delivered”. Now, his application of principle is so flexible, he would be in danger of being re-branded as the Rubber Man of Canadian politics...

The Prime Minister, having stacked the Senate with his own partisans, knows that they will vote for his agenda. But, on occasion, this means they will overrule the will of the elected House – something he used to consider an affront to democracy.

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