Monday, June 27, 2011

Drivel watch: Reynolds on confederation

Globe columnist Neil Reynolds's ideas on business often strike me as pretty strange, but then he gets on to history....  Today his thesis is that an 1864 American confederate incident on the Canadian border,  in the midst of Canada's confederation planning, somehow gave us our Senate.

But Mr Reynolds thinks the great coalition of 1864 was between John A. Macdonald and George-Etienne Cartier.  Um, they had already been partners for a decade; it was the coming in of George Brown and the reformers that made the coalition - and confederation.

Mostly Mr Reynolds raises the St Albans thing to allow him to suggest the impetus for confederation -- and the Senate -- was John A. Macdonald's fear and loathing of American democracy.  But confederation was an all-party consensus, not Macdonald's handiwork, and the form of the Senate was mostly the Reformers' doing.  Brown in particular was determined to limit the power of the Senate, precisely to put authority in the lower, more representative house, the one elected on a broad franchise and strict representation by population.  That was a triumph for democracy, not for authoritarianism.

The achievement of the confederation-makers was to create a Senate that was weak, because a strong upper house forms a threat to democracy, not a bulwark of it.  In planning a weak upper house, who can deny that they succeeded? The Conservative plan of recent years to empower the senate now seems to be falling apart as even conservatives recognize what a fundamentally dumb idea is is.  Here's Lysiane Gagnon's dismissal in the same issue of the Globe & Mail, and these days the National Post is full of rue and rependence from erstwhile Triple-E'rs

Update, June 29:  Historian Lawrence Hannant of Victoria demolishes Reynolds in the Globe letters column:
 In fact, Canada did and does have checks and balances, and that structure was built at Confederation. The balance was provided by the fact that two levels of government were created, each with distinctive powers. 
 And Janet Ajzenstat does the same at The Idea File:
Neil Reynolds argues that “thanks to John A. Macdonald’s “fear of democracy, Canada would never experience multiple centres of political power now celebrated as checks and balances.”
It’s a familiar idea; it’s been taught in departments of history and political science for decades. The Fathers of Confederation did not want democracy. We did not get it in 1867 and Canada today is still not democratic.
But dear friends, familiar as it is, it’s not true. The Fathers, including Macdonald, prescribed liberal democracy. Ours is one of the world’s oldest liberal democracies. 
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