Thursday, June 05, 2008

History of bad history: the Senate

Quebec Intergovernmental minister Benoit Pelletier does not like the Harper government's Senate reform proposals. Well, I don't either.

But Pelletier goes on to invoke history. As seems inevitable when politicians invoke Senate history, it's bad history.

"Quebec would not have joined confederation had it not been for the assurance of a strong Senate voice," Pelletier declares. By strong, Pelletier means a strong voice for the provinces, and he wants that achieved by empowering provincial governments (not voters) to send their delegates to the Senate.

But that's not "the federal compromise of 1867." The confederation makers did not want the Senate to represent provinces. They allocated the seats by region -- a deliberately vague designation that detatched the Senators from narrowly provincial affiliations. Whats' more important, they decisively turned their back on the "strong" Senate to which Pelletier refers. They made the Senate appointive precisely to ensure that it would be weak, not a decision-making power but a consulative body, a place for sober second thought rather than legislative action. Days after the Quebec conference, George Brown dismissed future senators as "old ladies." Eventually he became a Senator himself, but only because he had already withdrawn from real politics to concentrate on his newspaper. Quebec put its trust in a provincial government for local matters and a strong contingent of MPs in Ottawa, not in a powerful Senate.

The confederation settlement of 1867 put power in the Commons, because the confederation-makers understood that the Commons is the representative house, and therefore the truly legitimate one. Today the problem is in the Commons -- but the solution has to be found there too. Attempts at workarounds by tinkering with the Senate -- or with the voting system, for that matter-- will always miss the target.
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