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I support (real) Senate reform.

It’s been rather amusing pointing out the hypocrisy that Harper has engaged in with all these crony appointments to the Senate in recent days and comparing them to his past statements, but let me say that I also want to mirror Jeff’s blogpost in saying that if Harper were actually to propose real Senate reform, I’d go along with that. What is “real Senate reform”, you might ask? Jeff’s definition will do nicely:

..real and meaningful Senate reform means a constitutional amendment. It means the amending formula. It means sitting down with the provinces and negotiating regional representation, and elections, and term limits, and the balance of powers between House and Senate. It means lobbying for public support for that bill, and passing it through the provincial legislatures and the federal parliament.

It also means 7 provinces that have at least 75% 50% of the population have to approve of the Constitutional amendments – not an easy task, but then, amending the Constitution was never meant to be easy. That said, if Harper was to show the courage of his convictions and actually open up the constitution with the intent of reforming the Senate, he’d actually gain some respect and even some support from folks not normally anywhere inclined to his political point of view.

As to the exact nature of those reforms, if you’re not an abolitionist, the obvious base intent of the reforms is to make the Senate an elected body, and to make sure the provinces current regional makeup of Senate seats are addressed to make sure all provinces are treated equitably with their share of Senate seats, as Jeff mentioned is a problem with the current representation.

The question then becomes what exactly do about the potential of having deadlock between the 2 legislative houses that make up Parliament. I don’t necessarily agree with the proposal here that the Senate’s powers be stripped to only have delaying powers on legislation. That being said, I’m also not a real big fan of the situation in the US – where differences in the 2 voting chambers can only be settled by a process called “reconciliation” – and only if it’s to do with financial matters.

My thoughts are to have a modified version of what the Australian Parliament uses. In brief and to simplify the explanation, their system is setup so that their Governor-General dissolves the Australian Parliament after a certain length of time has passed and calls for elections if there is no agreement between the 2 Houses on the legislation in question (ie neither body refuses to vote for the others amendments or original bill). If the 2 bodies still cannot agree on said piece of legislation after that, then the following situation occurs to break the deadlock:

…the Governor-General may convene a joint sitting of the two houses to consider the bill or bills, including any amendments which have been previously proposed in either house, or any new amendments. If a bill is passed by an absolute majority of the total membership of the joint sitting, it is treated as though it had been passed separately by both houses, and is presented for Royal Assent.

For the Canadian situation, I wouldn’t bother with the first part about dissolving Parliament every time the House of Commons and the Senate disagreed over bills -else we’d possibly be calling elections a lot more then our current minority government situation (and as we’re constantly reminded by media and politicians, Canadians hate elections unless absolutely necessary).

To get around that, I’d just go straight to the 2nd part of the equation, (hence my “modified” version of the Australian situation) – if there is no agreement between the 2 legislative bodies on the legislation in question (or proposed amendment/amendments to said bill) after 3 months, then convene a joint sitting and let the 2 bodies vote on it. Majority rule either way defeats or passes the legislation. Keep the current rules in place about the Senate not being allowed to initiate “money bills”, and the rules with it in regards to such matters as the Budget and such, and I think you reduce your chances of legislative gridlock with 2 elected houses.

UPDATE: Let me state also quite clearly that I don’t expect Harper to actually attempt this – I expect he’ll carry on with his version of “Senate reform”, which is piecemeal, temporary, nonbinding on the provinces, and possibly (if he goes too far with it) unconstitutional – not to mention overly partisan. If the party I support would like to have a clear-cut policy difference from Harper that everyone is currently criticizing the Liberals don’t have at the moment (with some justification, although let’s wait until the election platform is out), then here’s one idea for the LPC to differentiate itself.

UPDATE 2: Kudos to Jeff for making me slightly more likely to read the National Post’s “Full Comment” Section, with the arrival of his postings to that site (though I’m likely just to read the blogpost at his site rather then support that paper).

10 comments to I support (real) Senate reform.

  • Greg

    Scott, the trap is the debate itself. If you want to know what it will look like, turn on the TV and watch the US health-care debate. The Harperites will not be satisfied with your approach. It will be Harper’s way or else, the west is gone. That will be his message to the other provinces. Fall into line or else. He will stir up all the loons and we will have a constitutional crisis that will make last year look like a tea party. However, he has himself said that if he can’t reform it, he would abolish it. If he is confronted now, maybe, he can be forced to do something he has promised to do. That is also unlikely, because he is a liar, but the alternative is much, much worse.

  • I think if Harper ever got a majority government, he wouldn’t touch Senate reform unless the provinces demanded it. Harper’s line will be, “Convince the provinces to support my model, then I’ll discuss Senate reform with them.”

  • Gayle

    I think there is a difference between recognizing there is need to reform the senate, and the willingness to proceed.

    While I agree the need exists, I have no interest in seeing my country engaged in yet another round of constitutional negotiations that are doomed to fail – and right now I think they ARE doomed to fail.

    I do not think the LPC want to keep the senate as is, I just think they recognize what a risk it would be to attempt to reform it. If Harper wants to reform the senate so badly, let him be the one to sell reopening the constitution to the country – and let him take responsibility if it fails.

  • Phil

    “It also means 7 provinces that have at least 75% of the population have to approve of the Constitutional amendments”

    It’s actually 7 provinces representing 50% of the population, not 75%.

  • Nicely put, Scott. I would agree with that proposed reform. The difficulty, of course, is getting all those parties to agree to something fair(er) for everyone, so I’m not holding my breath.

    I must say though that I don’t even understand the fuss. For me, reforming the Senate in any fashion is just not a priority. We have so many other important issues and the Senate is nowhere close to my radar screen. The fact that our elected MP’s are kiiling so much time talking about Senate reform instead of talking about more important issues just makes me sad.

    And after that, electoral reform for the HoC would come first anyway.

  • If I am not mistaken, changes to federal institutions (which would include the Senate) require the unanimous consent of the provinces.

    • @Malcolm+, Not how I read the act:

      38. (1) An amendment to the Constitution of Canada may be made by proclamation issued by the Governor General under the Great Seal of Canada where so authorized by

      (a) resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons; and

      (b) resolutions of the legislative assemblies of at least two-thirds of the provinces that have, in the aggregate, according to the then latest general census, at least fifty per cent of the population of all the provinces.

      Unanimity is only needed in the following matters;

      An amendment to the Constitution of Canada in relation to the following matters may be made by proclamation issued by the Governor General under the Great Seal of Canada only where authorized by resolutions of the Senate and House of Commons and of the legislative assembly of each province:

      a) the office of the Queen, the Governor General and the Lieutenant Governor of a province;

      (b) the right of a province to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of Senators by which the province is entitled to be represented at the time this Part comes into force;

      (c) subject to section 43, the use of the English or the French language;

      (d) the composition of the Supreme Court of Canada; and

      (e) an amendment to this Part.

  • Greg

    You are falling into Harper’s trap. Abolish the damn thing.

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