Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Senate Sez: We're going to the polls before the snow melts.

The Canadian Senate is colloquially known as the “chamber of sober second thought”. The implication is that partisan and flighty Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, facing election every 4 years or less, may pass unwise legislation to score political points, so we need a group of mature, non-elected and securely serving-for-life representatives to review legislation before it becomes law.
For most of Canadian history, that concept has worked fairly well. In addition to improving or delaying problematic bills, the Senate has taken on and studied many controversial social issues, including elections, taxation, illegal drugs, and prostitution, and been able to put forward more pragmatic suggestions (such as legalization of the latter two, and reforms of the former two) than it seems governing MPs are allowed to endorse. And in recent years, the Senate’s roll in examining legislation for basic errors has become more crucial, as bills are forced through the House by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority with debate cut off, committee hearings a pretense, and all proposed amendments, even of corrections of blatant errors, shouted down.
Nevertheless, the Senate’s committees do perform valuable functions, even if their advice is being ignored for now. Yet they are reaching the point where they won’t be able to do even that, due to a lack of appointments. 16 vacancies have developed over the past year, and Prime Minister Harper is in no hurry to fill them. In his view, as long as the Senate has a Conservative majority and quorum to pass his government’s legislation, it’s good enough for him. But is it good enough for us?
I would argue not, and the Speaker of the Senate would agree, because these vacancies mean valuable committee work can’t be done, and some regions of the country are going under-represented. So what is the holdup?
Marching as to the polls?
Essentially, Harper seems to feel that if he can’t have his style of elected Senate, then we’re better with as little Senate as possible. And he’s probably very wary of making the normal style of appointments – of party hacks, basically – because of how he’s been burned by his past appointees, like suspended Senators Mike Duffy, Pamela Wallin, and Patrick Brazeau. If an early election is in the wind, now would be a bad time to risk more such appointments, which could safely be made after said early election.
Another Senate signal of an early election is that it recently found significant errors in private member’s bill C-525 limiting union powers, but passed it anyway. The pretext was that if the bill were corrected, it would have to go through the House again, and that might not happen before the next election, in effect killing the bill. Well, if the next election truly isn’t until October of next year, then isn’t that more than enough time? One would think so. But if the next election is actually coming in late winter or early spring, then getting even this very flawed anti-union bill onto the books becomes a pressing issue.
Combine these Senate signals with expensive Conservative candidate literature appearing in our mailboxes last month and the message seems to be get ready to go to the polls before the snow melts.

UPDATE: This column attracted a Letter to the Editor - see it, and my response, here.

Published as my Root Issues column in the Barrie Examiner.
Erich Jacoby-Hawkins is a director of Living Green and the Robert Schalkenbach Foundation.

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