I suppose I could begin by denouncing the travesty that more seats will be added to the House of Commons to reflect changing population patterns in Canada. I could argue that need, logic and common sense all dictate doing exactly the opposite — leaving the total number of members the same but decreasing seats where population warrants. Canada needs more members of Parliament like I need more cavities.
But there’s really no point in beating this forlorn drum. There’s as much chance of stopping the increases from going ahead as there is in expecting integrity from Tony Clement or a strong, democratic, central government in Afghanistan. Some things are simply not on. So let’s get to what should be possible — putting the kibosh on the absurd notion of reforming the Senate by electing it.
That we have no need for a second house of Parliament of any kind is the first proposition here; in today’s world, no persuasive case for such a chamber, elected or appointed, can be made. There is no role for it that can’t be better played by others, whether the House of Commons or the provinces. If Canada was being created today, no one would think it needed two chambers, just as no Egyptian or Tunisian rebel has pleaded for a bicameral parliament.
What makes most sense in terms of both democratic theory and Canada’s needs is to get rid of the damn place entirely before it scuppers more useful legislation. But abolition requires a constitutional amendment, which is also as likely as getting Tony Clement to show integrity. Still, the way forward is remarkably simple: Impose stringent term limits on sitting senators — I’m thinking Labour Day at the latest — and then just stop appointing new members. Before you could curse Mike Duffy, there’d be no more senators in the Senate.
This of course will not happen, since the Prime Minister seems determined to leave behind an elected Red Chamber. Why he’s obsessed with this notion is, like so many of the other dogmas in his catechism — prisons good, Israel good, corporate taxes bad, long-gun registry and long-form census awful, coalitions evil — quite obscure. He asserts his articles of faith but never troubles to explain the reasons behind them. Arguably, there are none; dogmas disdain reason.
There is, in fact, no rational case to be made for an elected Canadian Senate in terms of democratic practice. But I want to make a more practical if equally damning objection. Consider the simple logistics of electing a senator. Each senator is said to represent or be associated with a region, each region more or less being a province. So when a Senate seats comes open, a senatorial candidate would have to present herself to the entire province and be elected by the entire province.
Anyone who’s ever worked in an election campaign will immediately see the staggering organizational implications. In our parliamentary system, like Britain’s and unlike that of the United States, no politician ever directly faces an entire province or region. No individual, whether provincially or federally, runs anything more than a riding campaign. Provincial and federal leaders each run in their own ridings but each heads a larger provincial or national campaign. The main parties have machinery that makes these campaigns possible. More to the point, the parties alone have such machinery.
No individual in Canada has anything remotely like it. In fact no individual, unless she were a member of a party and had that party’s support for her senatorial campaign in, say, Alberta, or New Brunswick, has any campaign machinery of any kind beyond her own riding. So how do you run a region-wide campaign? Where do you get the money, the advisers, the organizers, the volunteers, the polling, the offices, the computers, the signs, the bus and plane, the ads, the war room, the strategists? What are Stephen Harper’s answers to these questions? Maybe his cat Stanley knows, but we the people do not.
Seems to me there are only two possibilities. Certainly no ordinary citizen pining to be a senator would have the slightest hope of putting together a province-wide campaign of any serious kind. So the first, and most obvious, possibility is also the most likely. The parties will choose their own candidates and organize a full-blown, single-province election campaign each time a Senate seat has to be filled. How can that help any aspect of Canada’s governance? How much will each run cost? Who pays? Do Canadians want an endless series of mini-me election campaigns for the rest of eternity? In this year’s dramatic, exciting national election, only 61 per cent of Canadians took the trouble to vote. Who’s going to care, or should care, about a campaign to elect a single Senator from one of the parties? The winner would be seen as yet another party functionary elected by a handful of party activists with little recognition and less legitimacy.
The only other remotely plausible possibility, so far as I can see, is that some high-profile figure, temporarily off her rocker, might jump in. We’ve just seen this phenomenon in the United States, when the egregious Donald Trump threatened to run for the presidency based on racist innuendo about Barack Obama — only in America, thank heavens. Could Canada throw up (you should pardon the expression) a Donald? There’s Conrad Black (what a perfect campaign slogan: “Who knows more about institutions than I do?”) Rick Mercer? Senator Romeo Dallaire? Céline Dion (yes!!!)? Uncle Albert? Justin Bieber? Hazel McCallion? The Canucks? (Okay, not the Canucks.)
What a useless bore the entire discussion is. Here’s what I just don’t get. Stephen Harper has so many really awful things he’s dying to do to this country, as one of his ministers forthrightly put it this week. Why clutter the agenda with a complete waste of time like an elected Senate?
This article was first published in the Globe and Mail.
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