Crawl Across the Ocean

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Shut it Down

"You say you'll change the constitution
Well, you know
We all want to change your head
You tell me it's the institution
Well, you know
You better free you mind instead"1

I hate to disagree with Paul and John, and I've been to the building that houses the Senate and it's quite nice, so burning it down seems a tad excessive, but the appointment of a bunch of new senators seems like a good time to point out that the Senate really should be shut down. The truth is, I don't really care who is appointed to it.

If anyone disagrees, please let me know what the Senate has accomplished in the last 10 years besides thwarting the public (and the government's) desire to update our 113 year old (and counting) animal cruelty legislation. The whole, absurd, story can be found here. And if it was accomplishing more, would that be a good thing, given its undemocratic nature?

Seriously, do we really need to spend millions of dollars a year just so we can have a chamber of sober second special interest pleading? Is the governance of the provinces suffering in some way due to the absence of provincial Senates?

I appreciate that it's a whole can of worms to try and modify the constitution but is that the only reason the Senate is still standing - or are there people who think it's a good idea? - Or people who'd like to see an elected Senate? I'm just wondering (I'll have to figure out how to post a poll one of these days).

Update (mere hours later): You know how once you're looking for something you suddenly see it everywhere?

From today's globe,
"Environment Canada estimates that, on average, a minimum of 300,000 seabirds are killed every year in Atlantic Canada waters as a result of ship operators illegally dumping bilge oil. This number of deaths is greater than that caused by the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

Bill C-15 provides an opportunity to eliminate an unnecessary activity practised by irresponsible companies and individuals whose actions make the entire industry look bad. Newfoundlanders who have had to walk along beaches filled with dead and dying oiled sea birds - indeed, all Canadians who treasure Canada's coastal environment - will be pleased to see this abhorrent activity dramatically curtailed, if not entirely stopped. Without the swift passage of Bill C-15, this environmental disaster - first reported nearly 45 years ago - will continue."

C-15 has already passed the House of Commons but,
"Unfortunately, in the past few weeks, representatives of Canada's shipping industry have been working hard to scuttle this proposed law either by having the Senate defeat it, or by making amendments that will weaken the bill and cause it to go back to the House of Commons."

Sober second special interest pleading indeed.

1 From 'Revolution' by the Beatles, on the off chance that my pool of readers is large enough to contain someone who doesn't recognize it.

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  • I did a four part series on the Canadian senate, starting here.

    Basically, I support a senate elected through proportional representation. Flawed though our first past the post system is, it has benefits, and I don't want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The Senate is designed to address the weaknesses of the house by applying a different system of bringing up legislators, and a different way to look at legislation.

    The best way to bring about a compromise between FPTP and proportional represenation, to my mind, would be to apply proportional representation to the Senate. The weaknesses of one are balanced against the strengths of the other.

    By Blogger James Bow, at 4:31 PM  

  • I oscillate between wanting the senate abolished and wanting to keep it how it is. Sure, the senate does not do much and its political power has all but atrophied away, but every once and awhile it puts out some interesting proposals. Case in point was the marijuana study a few years back. Their conclusions were not unique and needless to say, a core group of academics are better suited to evaluating material the senate looked at than the senate is. However, the senate is a government body and so the opinions arguably hold more weight politically than a body of academics. In terms of the States, it was certainly more newsworthy.

    As these Senators are not elected and their positions are more secure than an esteemed professor with ten year, their work is not politicized to same degree as MPs. In terms of the Canadian system, this is a good thing.

    An elected senate would be a disaster, especially if senators were not required to vote down party lines. Pork Pork Pork. Historically, the purpose of a second house (the house of lords for example) was to serve as a check on the power of the people; in other words, it served as a means of protecting the upper crust from the people. Thanfully, the British House of Lords can no longer serve that role even if they wanted to. They have no real power.

    That is not the case in the US. Even though the US senate is elected, it does a bang up job of protecting the powerful. Not surprisingly, in many respects the primary means of social change in the States is not the government, but the courts and everyone should be cognizant of how Bush is seeking to limit the transformative power of litigation.

    By Anonymous koby, at 5:42 PM  

  • Whooee! I wrote me up a little boog story 'bout the senate, too. Mine ain't a four part quadrillogy like JameseyBoy Bowfeller's.

    I reckon we oughta either toss the senate onta the trash heap o' failed idees or elsewise do sum reformin' like that there Triple E thingamacallit. Right now, that senate chambre ain't nuthin' but a gravy train upper house polytickal patronage retirement home fer friends o' pryministers.

    Yores trooly,

    By Blogger JimBobby, at 5:28 AM  

  • Thanks for the links James, JimBobby (someday I'll have to go back and skim through all your achives James like I did with Andrew Spicers - someday or some-month maybe, there's a lot there).

    I agree with koby (and Andrew in the comments on JimBobby's post) that an elected Senate would probably be a worst case scenario.

    Given their smaller numbers, I expect you'd see Senators become both more powerful than MP's and be drawn more from 'high' society (i.e. the wealthy) much like has happened in the United States.

    I don't think that more elected bodies necessarily translates into more democracy. In fact, I would guess that the weaknesses of one body would compound the weaknesses of the other rather than offsetting, but that's just my opinion.

    In addition, I'm a big believer in one person, one vote, so I'm not keen on one P.E.I. resident = 80 votes type schemes where some people get more representation based on lines on a map. True, you could argue that provinces have regional needs that must be represented and not overwhelmed by a majority from somewhere else, but that's why we set up a federal system where provinces have full taxation power to take care of a whole range of issues which are deemed to be regional in nature.

    As for a compromise between FPTP and proportional representation I would rather just see the House of Commons elected using Single Transferrable Vote or Mixed Member Proportional, as both of these systems are, in and of themselves, compromises between FPTP and proportional representation.

    In other words, I'm not really sure there is a baby in the FPTP bathwater, it just looks like dirty water to me.

    Koby - I had the exact same thought about the role of the Senate, in particular the report on marijuana they produced and it did give me some pause in wanting to see the Senate abolished - but I don't think we really need a chamber of parliament just to do studies.

    There's a small voice in the back of my head that worries that, maybe not today, or the next day, but somewhere down the line our parliament may run amok and a sober, non-politicized Senate may be all that stands between us and going down some ugly road.

    In particular, a Senate might be able to resist a trend towards more oppressive, authoritarian government passing 'crisis-response' legislation which tramples on the rights of the citizens. The House of Lords in England has, I believe, played a role somewhat like this in obstructing some of the more odious aspects of England's post 9/11 'anti-terror' laws.

    Of course in this scenario, a group of senators who are elected every few years would be unlikely to be any help, so that's another reason why I wouldn't want elected Senators (and if they were elected I'd like it to be for a long term - say 10 years - but then the Senators would be *really* powerful, so it's kind of a no-win).

    But I think that if it ever came to that type of situation, our whole society would probably be so far gone that the Senate would be unable to stop whatever was happening, even if it wanted to, so I'm not sure the Senate would be useful even in that role (although it could be a helpful brake).

    Perhaps I am (overly?) skeptical about the attention span of Canadian voters being wide and deep enough to make both a House of Commons and a Senate work effectively on their behalf.

    At any rate, looking forward, I see the Senate remaining a mostly ineffectual forum for special interests to get a second chance at lobbying government, and that electing Senators would just make them a much more effective institution for doing the same thing.

    Given this, I'd rather just see the whole institution shut down. But because of that voice in the back of my head, I'm okay not making a (big) fuss and just letting it carry on as usual, sort of like an expensive insurance policy. But I'd actively oppose having an elected or effective Senate - especially an 'equal' one.

    By Blogger Declan, at 1:53 PM  

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