Thursday, August 27, 2009

New Senate appointments -- good!

I accept I'm alone in this, but I'm happy enough with the appointive Senate, to which Prime Minister Harper is about to appoint eight more party loyalists. (Though Warren Kinsella is funny today in quoting all the prime minister's promises never to appoint anyone to the Senate.)

On the Senate, I'm a Rogersian. I follow the analysis of Will Rogers, the American humorist who said, "Thank goodness we don't get all the government we pay for." We do pay something for the Senate, but at least it does not do anything.

The most important thing about the Senate is its weakness. There are no good reasons for having a powerful Senate. The senate is by its nature unrepresentative, and must always be. If it were a representative house, it would be the House of Commons, and we don't need two of those. Since it will be unrepresentative, it should be weak.

The confederation makers wanted an upper house for ceremonial and traditional reasons, but they were determined that it would not present a strong challenge to the representative lower house to which the government was accountable. The best way to ensure it was weak was to make it appointive, so that it lacked the legitimacy to challenge the elected lower house. And it only has stood up to the Commons in extreme and temporary circumstances, generally when the lower house was screwing things up.

I could live with Senate abolition, and I'm okay with term limits. But until that day, the best thing for democrats and parliamentarians to advocate is leaving it alone. The cost of running a home for old party faithful is tiny compared to the price we would pay if we actually empowered the Senate. And the one sure way to give the Senate a sense of entitlement is to make it elective. It would still be unrepresentative and undemocratic, but suddenly it would start actually interfering in government. Could not be a good thing.

Update: Stephen Michael MacLean comments:
I too am ‘happy enough with the appointive Senate’. I have some qualms about term limits but, if one is to square the circle, I would support (and probably advise) that the minimum age be raised from thirty to maybe something like forty-five. With mandatory retirement at age seventy-five, a rather liberal term limit of thirty years.

I agree entirely with your statement that we don’t need two representative houses and that ‘one sure way to give the Senate a sense of entitlement is to make it elective’; anyone who thinks that an elected Senate would remain submissive is delusional, especially since (i) constitutionally it is almost co-equal with the Commons (why I think the Fathers of Confederation were a bit more serious than your essay suggests) and (ii) would, depending upon the electoral system selected, have members more representative of the electors than MPs (apportioning 24 senators for Ontario, for instance, compared to 107 MPs).
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