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Canadian Electoral Reform (yawn) – Trying To Fix What Isn’t Broken

maple-leaf-forever-resizedThere’s a lot of talk around town these days about parliamentary reform. but I don’t think all that many people supporting some idea of reform have actually considered the real issues or have a full understanding of how our system is supposed to work.

The two  reforms most often discussed are moving from a first-past-the-post voting system to representation by population. The other is a Triple E Senate; equal, effective, elected.

Both reforms are constitutional which means they haven’t got much hope of happening based on the somewhat stringent requirements to make changes to our constitution. One thing on which most agree is that the current system isn’t working out quite the way we want, so let’s put aside how difficult implementing reform would be and just consider the merits of the case for change.

Let’s take a look at the suggested reform of the Senate first.

To be honest, I’ve never fully understood why people are so intent on overhauling the institution because with the exception of being elected, the Senate is constitutionally equal and effective. I appreciate that it isn’t in practice but that isn’t because the power to be equal and effective doesn’t already exist.


The Canadian Senate Chamber

The Senate can introduce and pass legislation with the exception of bills implementing new taxes. They cannot permanently override the will of the elected Commons because there is a provision for the government to overrule any final rejection of a bill by the Senate. Other than that, the two houses are, for all practical purposes, constitutionally and  effectively equal….at least in theory.

A bill introduced in the Senate follows the same process as that followed by the Commons only in reverse. After going through the normal process of 1st and 2nd reading, Senate bills are then passed to the Commons for review and amendment. At the end of the process, just as it is with bills introduced in The Commons, both houses must assent to the bill for it to be presented to The Crown to be signed into law or the House of Commons has used its authority to overrule the Senate if the Senate has failed to agree to pass the legislation.

What this means is that the Senate has most of the same basic legislative power as the House of Commons. The fact that it is almost never used has less to do with constitutional authority than it does with tradition, practice and politics.

Because the Senate is not elected, there is some reluctance by Senators to override the will of the people which as expressed by the House of Commons. Good move on their part – we the people can be a bit cranky at times, especially these days.

Consequently, the Senate has evolved in practice to be more of a house of sober second thought with more emphasis on reviewing and suggesting amendments to Commons’ bills than on being a legislative body in its own right.

This is probably also due to the fact that Senators are appointed by the crown, which means the Queen through her representative the Governor General but in practice really means the Prime Minister.

While there are more than a few Senators who take their roles seriously and serve Canada well, being appointed by a prime minister  has turned the Senate into somewhat of a retirement home for party bagmen and women who basically see their role as supporting their party in the Commons by either pushing through legislation if their party has formed the government or interfering with it if their party is in opposition.

Seat distribution in the Senate is based on  regional representation with each designated region getting 24 Senators.  Because the Senate is not elected, there has been a tendency for Senators to demonstrate more loyalty to their political party than to the people of whatever region they are supposed to represent.

I don’t accept the argument that we need significant reform in the Senate itself but I do submit we need to give some consideration to how the Senate is constituted.

I believe the Senate should be elected.

By electing senators a number of things are accomplished. First, it removes the power of a Prime Minister to stack the chamber for the foreseeable future by instead having fixed terms at the end of which elections are held. It might even be worthwhile to consider having the Senate elected using some variation of representation by population rather than first-past-the-post.

I like the American system of six-year terms with one third of the Senate being elected every two years. This provides the opportunity for the people to refresh their government in a timely manner without having to wait for general elections of the Commons every four or five years.

Because senators will be elected, they will have a more direct connection to the people and, hopefully therefore, a more focused responsibility to them rather than to the party that appointed them to a life-long reward for previous services rendered. It will also give the people a mechanism to curb the activities of a government with which they are unhappy during that government’s term in office instead of having to wait for a general election.

Finally and probably most important, an elected Senate will have the same moral authority as the elected House of Commons because both will be an expression of the will of the people. This balances political power more effectively by reducing the influence of a prime minister and his/her cabinet over senators from within his/her own party. This provides a stronger check on the power of the Commons in general and the government specifically.

If not elected, then I think the Senate should be appointed by an independent body rather than the government in power.

This could be as simple as the provincial premiers for each region appointing the senators that represent their regions. So, for example, each time a vacancy came open in Atlantic Canada, it is the premiers of Atlantic Canada that would select and appoint the new senator. It could even be left up to the premiers as to whether or not they held elections or simply appointed new senators to represent their regions.

Whether elected or appointed, however, I still think term limits are essential to the overall health and effectiveness of the Senate and other senior appointed positions for that matter – including the Supreme Court which I also think should be expanded to ten judges with each province appointing their own.

Abolishing the senate as some suggest would greatly strengthen the power of a prime minister and his/her cabinet. I would suggest that giving more power to people who don’t always exercise very effectively the power they already have is not a solution. It is more likely an invitation to even more abuse.

And that brings us to representation by population. (Good Lord this stuff is dry, isn’t it? but hang in, we’re almost done).

Andrew Coyne has written a few times, including today, about reforming our electoral system by changing from a first-past-the-post method to representation by population similar to that in – oh, I don’t know – Italy for example.

Why anyone would want to condemn our government to perpetual coalitions and an over abundance of elections is beyond me but let’s be fair and at least consider the possibility.

On second thought, let’s not.

There was no talk of changing the system before the progressive political parties found themselves on the outside looking in. Does anyone remember Andrew Coyne or very many others demanding electoral reform after the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to just two seats in the House of Commons thirty odd years ago?

Not bloody likely because it didn’t happen!

Back then, Jean Chretien and the Liberals swept into power heralding a thirteen year Liberal dominance that seemed perfectly acceptable to many of those now demanding electoral reform. It is only since they lost power in 2006 that they suddenly realize that our electoral system needs to be fairer.

Fairer for whom?

Our electoral system has served us and other countries well. It obviously works better with two parties than with a multitude but that is no reason to change the system. The fact that there are more than a dozen political parties in Canada that are finding it difficult to get elected to Parliament means that their motives for reform have less to do with better serving the country than with their own political objectives.

I would submit that the real problem isn’t how we elect our governments, it who we elect.

You didn’t hear progressives or conservatives talking much about electoral reform when the Liberals were riding high and living large. It’s only now after their own political shortcomings have caused them to lose power that some Liberals and there supporters have embraced the idea that the problem lies not within themselves or their policies but in how governments are elected.

It’s a convenient thought but not true. The Liberals didn’t lose the 2006 election because of first-past-the-post; they lost because they had an indecisive, weak leader and their party was still licking its wounds following the corruption of AdScam.

The Conservatives wandered in the wilderness for a decade after the majority governments of Brian Mulroney led angry Canadians to reduce them to just two seats in Parliament. That led to various iterations of conservatism including the Reform Party, The Alliance and finally the merger of the Alliance and the PCs into what we have now – the Conservative Party of Canada.

During that time, the conservative movement in Canada did some serious reflection about itself and its policies. Once the new party emerged stronger and united, it didn’t automatically start to win elections. It took a bit of time but eventually, in 2006, the Conservative Party of Canada won a minority government and the sky fell in for progressives.

The CPC went on to win a second larger minority government in 2008 and finally the current majority government given to it by the people in 2010.

In other words, they played by the rules and earned their way back into power. In so doing, they proved that the current method of electing a political party to form government, no matter how small, can and does work.

Contrast that with the efforts of the current Liberal Party of Canada.

After their rather humiliating drubbing in 2010, they took two years to reconsider things. What they came up with was a leadership campaign that is a farce and which has all but anointed a Justin Beiber clone simply because he’s popular rather than because he has substantive policy initiatives.

In other words, after being told by ‘we the people’ that we had had enough – the Liberals refused to do some serious introspection about their ethics, their policies and their attitude. Instead they fell back on old habits, continuing to bank on the fact that ‘we the people’ are stupid and will reelect them to power simply because Justin Trudeau is cool.

The current argument that is often put forward is that the current CPC government has a majority without representing a majority of Canadians. That’s true but it was just as true under Jean Chretien’s Liberals so what?  While that was A-OK while the Liberals were in office, it ain’t now apparently. It would be fairer; their thinking goes, to award seats based on the share of the vote each party receives as is done in Italy and Israel.

Just what this country needs; more fringe parties cluttering up the works.

Try to imagine a Canadian Parliament with eight or nine parties and ask yourself just how effectively that would work for us. Try to imagine how effective the very small parties would be under the rules of Parliament. Ask Elizabeth May how often she gets to ask a question in Question Period.

A few decades ago, there was even a satirical party called the Rhinoceros Party of Canada . It was an officially registered politically party that ran candidates here and there and received some votes. Among other things, the Rhinos wanted to repeal the law of gravity pay off Canada’ national debt with a Visa card.

Well it might have actually lightened up the tone of Parliament a bit, the idea of actually giving the Rhinos a seat or two under rep-by–pop would be as absurd to them as it should be to us.

I think all this talk about changing Canada’s electoral system is more sour grapes than anything else. It is political parties not willing to do what is necessary to build consensus around their political objectives and instead seeking to change the rules in the middle of the game to facilitate things for themselves.

Preston Manning and his Reform Party put forward ideas about reforming government but were rejected by progressives because — well — they were in power at the time and didn’t really see the need to reform anything. It’s only now that progressives are struggling to try and figure out how to regaon power without having to change their ethics and polices that suddenly electoral reform has some attraction for them.

If progressives want to get back into power, it’s time for them to stop looking for ways to manipulate our system  and more than past time for them to start doing some serious belly-button gazing about how they screwed things up to the point they got booted from power.

At the end of the day  it isn’t our system that needs reformation, it’s the thinking of some politicians and their parties. It isn’t our system that needs to be fixed, it’s the cynical and opportunistic attitudes of the people who misuse it that does..



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  • http://bgulk0.wix.com/raspberry-h-venue gramma Barb

    I am so disgusted with the behavior, antics and air of entitlement these public ‘service’ people known to us as ‘Senators’ ! By all accounts they are proving they are uneducated and underqualified to hold the position bestowed upon them. They cannot read and understand the ‘forms’ placed in front of them. They do not have the ability to understand the questions asked of them. They do not understand they are not entitled to monies of which they have not earned or have received because they lied. Shouldn’t all this be a red flag to the Prime Minister, or is this what they call a ‘stacked deck’? makes you wonder why PMSH wants stupid people in the Senate. Perhaps have them fill out a resume prior and a pre screening exam applying for ’employment’! We as Canadians need to apply “A sober second thought’ towards the necessity of this pen….oh sorry, ‘den”! YES the system needs to be reformed.

    • http://abearsrant.com thebear

      It’s not the system that need to be reformed it’s who is in the system. Reforming the system but ending up with the same kinds of people will fix nothing. Look at Berlusconi in Italy. The man is an idiot but even after all the scandals, here he is once again right in the thick of things. What we need is an elected Senate that is answerable to the people, not to a prime minister or a particular political party.

  • Sebastian Anders

    My thoughts exactly. I have written on this subject before, especially about the Rep by Pop and how it is the most ridiculous proposition for an electoral reform ever put forward. It is designed to favour those who cannot legitimately get elected democratically. And the result is, as you point out, the multiplication of political parties rendering governing impossible. It becomes nothing more than a battle of egos and for power. Governance becomes irrelevant.

    All this would have been much, much worse had the subsidies per vote still been in place. It would have served to finance just about every idiot and hangers on looking for a free ride.

    By the way, I almost did not bother to read this because music came on automatically that I could not ignore since it is the music that stirs my soul and gets my feet dancing. So out of courtesy for the musicians, I postponed reading your comments until they had finished. I am sure you would have done the same. Many thanks for the music.

  • http://www.crux-of-the-matter.com Sandy

    “It isn’t our system that needs reformation, it’s the thinking of some politicians and their parties.” Right on!