Wednesday, May 31, 2006

More Senate Action!

OK, I can see that a post on externalist vs. intentionalist theories of meaning on the front page is driving down my visits. I believe in giving the people what they want: so more Senate reform action.

Yesterday, Harper unveiled his legislation for senate reform and fixed election dates. The Globe story, including reactions from Western Premiers is here.

Fixed election dates are not the kind of thing that gets the Pithlord's juices flowing. It won't - can't - apply if the government fails to get supply or loses a vote of confidence. The immediate impact on Harper's strategic options are not great, therefore. The public don't want him to just call an election, and he can still do so if the opposition won't let him do something important. This gives him a fair bit of room to decide what the election issue is going to be.

On the merits, the Pithlord doesn't really care. The incumbent party loses a tactical advantage, if it can't control the election timing. On the other hand, we all lose the relatively time-limited scope of Canadian election campaigns. As the Americans show, a fixed election date means that there is no natural limit on electioneering, which in turn means that normal people are heartily sick of the whole thing by the time they are expected to vote.

On Senate reform, I just have to admire Harper's strategic sense. He knows how to turn weaknesses into strengths.

A big obstacle to any reform is that the Senate is constitutionalized. A change in the "powers of the Senate and the method of selecting Senators" requires agreement of the House, the existing Senate, and 7 provincial legislatures representing more than 50% of the population (in other words, at least one of Ontario and Québec must be in the seven). There is also a Chrétien-era statute prohibiting a Minister of the Crown from even proposing a constitutional amendment for ratification unless all of Ontario, Québec, British Columbia, two prairie provinces and two Atlantic provinces, agree, and no government could really repeal that statute.

Nobody, other than existing Senators, likes the existing Senate. But any other option means some region loses. If the Senators are elected, then they have the legitimacy to use their vast constitutional powers. And then the regions that are vastly under-represented as a result of a formula of representation set out in the nineteenth century lose. If it becomes "Triple-E", then Ontario and, most importantly, Québec, lose. On the other hand, the "Triple-E" dream is too strong for the small provinces to be happy with abolition, and for odd sentimental reasons, it has a huge resonance in the Albertan base of the Conservative Party, even though Alberta would lose if it ever came to be.

Harper uses this logjam to provide himself with a reform that might work out for him. Arguably, at least, the terms of the Senators can be changed by federal statute. And since appointment is in the gift of the Governor General, nothing prevents a convention emerging whereby the Governor General appoints only those who have been elected. So Harper's strategy is to limit the terms by statute, and then promise to make replacements from special elections conducted at the same time as the federal general election.

The Liberals are in an impossible political situation as a result. The incumbent Senators -- mostly Liberals -- are going to hate this, but their public image ranks just above sex offenders among the electorate. But creating eight-year terms has the bonus for Harper of putting off the issue of a fully-legitimate rival house into a third Harper term, should such emerge.

On the merits, it is bad for the West and gives an additional veto point in the Canadian political system for no particularly good reason.

Update: The linked-to Bill C-16 does not include anything about the Senate, which would be the constitutionally more difficult. One interesting thing about Bill C-16 is it represents the final triumph of Lord Byng and Eugene Forsey over William Lyon McKenzie King. For the first time, the Commons will have explicitly endorsed the reserve power of the Crown to dissolve (or not dissolve) Parliament in the Governor General's personal discretion.

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