Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Reform Bill not the Senate's cup of tea

"It is my opinion we would be better off without an upper house"
-- Alexander Mackenzie, future prime minister, 1865

Last week at Grano, I got to explain how the scheme of the confederation-makers at Quebec City in 1864 was to ensure that the Senate would fulfil most of Mackenzie's wish. It would be designed weak, unable to provide serious resistance to the will of the House of Commons, the representative and democratic house.  (Deets? See Three Weeks in Quebec City, Chapter 14.)

This week the Senate looks likely to kill the Reform Bill and its proposals to restore some parliamentary control to the House of Commons. The prime minister  is widely seen to be managing the Senate rebellion, as revenge on the house for passing a bill that was not his and implicitly rebukes his use of power.

The Senators certainly seem to be shoring up their reputation for oblivious thick-headedness:
"In the case of the government, that could potentially remove a duly elected prime minister without consultation of party members or Canadian voters,” said Conservative Sen. Denise Batters.
“How do you square that with grassroots democracy?”
Canadian voters do not elect leaders or governments — they elect MPs and legislatures, Chong told the committee. Allowing parties to decide solely on leaders in the Commons gives semi-private entities power that should rest with elected MPs, he said.

But I've been intrigued by commentary from Dale Smith, a journalist previously unknown to me, who supports the authority of the backbench but thinks the Reform Bill deserves to die, not just for doing too little, but for entrenching new and dangerous powers in those private entities.  His opinion is here, ("Chong's Reform Act sabotages parliamentary democracy and needs to be defeated"); follow his links for backup.

I've supported the Reform Bill in the expectation that MPs' appetites will grow with eating.: Give 'em a little authority, and they will grow to like it and look for more. Smith is right that entrenching the details of the private operations of political parties into legislation should be unnecessary and could be dangerous. Particularly, the bill does seem to legislate the right of the party at large to choose leaders when backbenchers remove them -- a bad idea through and through.

I'm still inclined to think that effecting these changes will lead to more backbench activism.  Or indeed, seeing this half-measure of democratic accountability killed by backroom sabotage in the Senate may inspire MPs to assert themselves even more effectively.  The House still has the ability to overcome Senate resistance if it cares to, as provided in 1864.

But Smith's ideas do make me go hmmmmm. 

Michael Chong photo: CP via Toronto Star.

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