Sunday, November 3, 2013

Senate Reform and Pandering to the Base. . . .

The Conservative Party under King Harper has always been aware, I believe, that Senate reform is essentially a non-starter without the cooperation of the Provinces. However, they continually touted the idea of reform as a way of whipping up support among their base. It was looked at as essentially a win-win for the CONParty because they knew that they could portray their failure to enact Senate reform as one more example of the "establishment" being in a confederacy against them. Despite being in power for many years, and wielding that power in a particularly centralizing and ruthless way, as well as having overwhelming media support for much of that time, the Conservative base still laps up the fantasy that there is a establishment conspiracy against them. The Government's failure to reform the Senate feeds well into this narrative. They made an issue of something they knew they couldn't really do anything about (without a genuinely open and cooperative relationship with the Provinces), and then hold this issue up as a way of demonstrating their supposed "outside the beltway" position in the political establishment. Meanwhile, Harper, who once insisted he would never appoint an unelected Senator, stacked the Senate with a bunch of people who had no business being their in the first place, and this barely registered was problematic with the base. Then, in a final irony, Harper tries to take credit for cleaning up the Senate by trying to get rid of the corrupt Senators who he appointed in the first place. The fact that anyone in the Conservative Party at all continues to support King Harper is a sad indictment of the general intelligence of the Conservative base.

And now, in what might be a new drama in Conservative know-nothingism, the HarperCons have begun to float the idea of a referendum on the Senate. Obviously no specifics have been discussed, and we will have to wait and see if anything comes of such an idea. However, once again such a notion would play into the ignorance of the Conservative base. This is because, there is, in fact, no actual referendum process in the Canadian political system. The government could, of course, organize a referendum on anything from legalizing drugs to outlawing hot dogs, but the results of such a vote would be in no way binding on the government, and could not be used to justify actions which were contrary to the constitution. There have only been three national referendums in Canada. One was used as a justification for conscription in WWII. One was the so-called Charlottetown Accord. And the other was on the question of outlawing alcohol. In this example, the people chose prohibition by a small percentage but Wilfrid Laurier simply ignored the results.

In other words, the HarperCons could hold a referendum on, say, eliminating the Senate; they could win by a huge majority; and it still would be nothing because as every legal mind in the country seems to suspect, the SCofC will soon rule that you cannot make significant changes to the Senate without provincial consent. But imagine the bluster that the HarperCons could express concerning the undue power of the Courts if they found themselves in this situation. Of course, as usual, the HarperCons have acted in an entirely backward fashion. If they had really wanted to have something to brag about with their base, they should have had a referendum BEFORE asking the top court to make a ruling that everyone pretty much was sure of to begin with. Now if the Court rules as expected and makes it clear that unidirectional Senate reform is a non-starter, a referendum will be obviously pointless.

The fact is that the HarperCons are not really interested in real Senate reform. They are, of course, interested in talking about Senate reform ad nauseam because it plays to their base. But if they had ever been interested in doing anything about the Senate Harper would have long ago convened a First Minister's meeting and begun an open and cooperative dialogue on the issue. But of course Harper has never had an open and cooperative dialogue with anyone so we don't have to worry about that. Instead, the past seven years demonstrates that while talking Senate reform to his base, Harper (like almost all previous PMs) simply wanted to use the Senate as rewards program for his cronies. And his appointments to the Chamber of Sober Second-Thought have been, arguably, some of the very worst ever made.


Owen Gray said...

"Some of the worst ever made."

And they say the man is a strategic genius.

doconnor said...

I don't think very many people in any party are energized by Senate reform. I think that is a more likely explanation for not doing anything (combined with the fact that doing something is hard).

Scotian said...

Agree completely with the entirety of your post with one slight disagreement, I would not have used the word "arguably" in your last sentence, I would have used "demonstrably" myself given all we have seen. To be made to long for Senators that sleep on the job or live in Mexico takes talent, but Harper managed to find such talent and send them to the Senate. It bugs me particularly because being a bit of a process geek I'm one of the few that actually thinks the Senate is a useful tool that while needing some updating and reform on the appointments side is otherwise fulfilling a useful check/balance function without creating the deadlock it being an elected body could create as we watch happen with our American neighbours. I know this makes me one of a small minority out there, but then my ability to actually understand the basics of how our system of government is set up and designed to function puts me in almost as small a minority of the public, much to my sadness and to the detriment of Canada and Canadians generally. Harper and company could never have gotten where they are without that vast ignorance being played to, and not just the ignorance within their own core either but also in the wider public across the political spectrum.

It really bothers me how poorly basic civics is understood by the citizenry of this nation, the ignorance here is arguably worse than it is with Americans understanding of how their governing institutions work, which is not something I like saying let alone believing. I also have a problem with the focus on Canadians as taxpayers first, instead of citizens first, I think that shift of focus has done a lot of damage over the long run, but that is the basis of another lengthy tome for another time.

Kirby Evans said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment Scotian. You are right, the ignorance in this country is breathtaking and the political class of all stripes trade on this ignorance to manipulate the system. I also think you are correct about the issue of an elected Senate - if we are going to have an elected Senate then we are just setting ourselves up for more American style politics. The problem now is that PMs just appoint party hacks and the Senate ends up just an arm of the PMO. On the other hand, eliminating the Senate without reforming the House of Commons, the PMO, and our electoral system, means nothing anyway. It just makes good headlines. I mean, look at how people are talking about the Senate as a body that needs "reform" or "elimination" when the totally corrupt nature of the PMO is barely a topic of conversation. Everyone is talking about auditing the Senators but no one is really talking about auditing the MPs. As I said the political class trades on ignorance and the smoke and mirrors of the media circus.