Whither “The Other Place”?

When parliament eventually gets back to business after the prolonged winter recess, perhaps one of the most interesting issues up for debate will be that of Senate reform.

Over the past four years, many Liberals have vigorously defended this unelected body of appointed individuals and its function as originally constituted to provide a sobering influence and balancing check on the power of the governing party of the day. Of course, that was quite politically convenient for them to do so at the time. Now that control of the Senate has officially been ceded to the Conservatives however, and it’s stuffed with a preponderance of unworthy “hacks” and “cronies” of the PMO (according to some critical partisans), will Liberals maintain the same degree of enthusiasm they previously held for preserving the Red Chamber’s present form and function?

Update: Unfortunately, I missed CTV’s Question Time (as usual, because it runs here at unpredictable times on channel 103 or something), but apparently Ignatieff talked on that program about the issue of Senate reform:

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff laid out some broad Senate reform ideas Sunday, including term limits and a curb on the prime minister’s ability to stack the Upper House with his own picks.

“That kind of reform, I think, is actually doable,” Ignatieff told CTV’s Question Period.

More specifically, Ignatieff proposed a 12-year term limit on Senate positions and an arms-length committee tasked with vetting candidates.

“I’d even go as far as to limit the prime minister’s prerogative to appoint senators. That is, I’d pass (appointments) through a public service appointment commission, so we scrub it and get the best possible appointees.”

The suggestions proposed aren’t entirely unreasonable, but they’re problematic in their own ways for various reasons. Term limits, for example, are dubious for the same reasons as mandatory retirement rules that are now widely considered discriminatory. If Senators are required to step down after a dozen years of service, then why should not judges and other appointees also be forced to do so? As for the appointment commission idea, its own composition and qualification could prove to be debatable…

Furthermore, these proposals miss one of the most fundamentally dysfunctional aspects of the Upper House, which is the ludicrous regional imbalance that’s been entrenched in its structure from the outset.


24 Replies to “Whither “The Other Place”?”

  1. The Harpies have all been going on the same talking points about how the evil communist red Lieberals/Lizbollah/Liberanos/etc are killing the legislation that the Glorious Dear Leader and his Harperial Mandate of Canada’s New Government (TM) heroically introduced. Therefore all the shortcomings of His Harperialness is the fault of the Liberals.

    What will be their excuse now? That the meanie Liberals and NDP want to play in the same sandbox?

  2. “prolonged winter recess”? Being rather polite, aren’t we? Isn’t the common term being bandied about “Harper Holiday”?

    In terms of Senate reform, I don’t think that anyone has been overly enthusiastic about tackling this issue in the past because it means opening constitutional talks (think Meech). Harper’s “creative” means of accomplishing reform through regulation and stacking is typical of someone who finds the democratic process to be avoided. I hope this comes back to bite him hard.

  3. For this liberal the answer to your last question is yes.

    Looking past the rhetoric from Mr. Harper and the Conservatives the Senate has not really held up any piece of legislation since the Free Trade Agreement in 1988. And that resulted in the Senate receiving accolades from around the country because most people believed that the voters should be allowed to vote on that treaty, something Brian Mulroney wanted to avoid.

    Otherwise, the Senators have realized that as unelected political operatives they really could not hold up or substantially change legislation passed by the elected House.

    If these new Conservative Senators want to change that when the Liberals inevitably win an election then I say have at it. Canadian will react not by demanding changes to the Senate but with anger towards the Conservatives.

  4. Well folks, it’s that time of year that the MSM dance around the crux of the story when it comes to political parties prowess in fund raising, so here are the straight goods, the annual totals for the year 2009;

    Conservatives $17,770,477

    Liberals $8,109,489

    NDP $4,039,104

    Greens $1,166,874

    Bloc $834,763

    *totals arrived at from the quarterly filings at the Elections Canada Finance page.

  5. While I feel there should be a betting pool as to what number Red’s blog is on Bob’s list for his fly by cut and paste postings, I would like to direct you, Red, to a great posting by Kady O’Malley, effectively debunking the spin that the Liberal dominated Senate has been this evil, malicious obstructionist cabal .

    Here is a salient point:
    For those of you who glazed over midway through, here’s the scorecard for the 21 criminal justice bills introduced during the last session: The vast majority — 15, to be specific — were still before the House of Commons at the time of prorogation — six at committee, nine awaiting second reading. Of the six remaining bills, three were in the Senate — although one had passed third reading, albeit with amendments — and just three had made it all the way to Royal Assent.

    Or, for an even simpler breakdown: 15/3/3. Wouldn’t that make a lovely pie chart? Well, less lovely if you happen to be in charge of writing the government’s anti-Senate talking points, of course, but still.

    But wait, I forgot, according to CPC partisans, Kady is just another Liberal shill. Don’t pay attention to her exhaustive, empirical work.

  6. P.S. Check out the statement from the Ministry Justice website also in that link. Pretty partisan jabs there.

  7. Brad — I was being genteel in calling it a “prolonged winter recess” but doing so with a smirk on my face. Also, I was getting completely sick of the word “prorogue”… But I like “Harper Holiday” — that’s a good one.

  8. JKG — Interesting. I liked the update via the NDP Googlers. But then, I’ve never bought into the spin that the Senate is obstructionist. The facts certainly don’t bear out that claim.

    In my opinion, the whole “tough on crime” legislative agenda that Harper and the Conservatives are always nattering on about is mostly a crock anyway. It’s got support from all parties (even the NDP), but I think he and the strategists in the PMO like to jerk around with it so they have it as a hot-button political issue they can fearmonger and pander to their base with.

  9. As boring as it can be, I decided to watch the Senate on CPAC periodically. Fact is, they go into issues and ask questions that parliament doesn’t. They also save governments headaches down the road legally and otherwise.

    Not as bad a people think they are.

    Can you imagine the cost of 8 year terms, senate elections and all those pensions?

  10. Senate wasn’t obstructionist?

    Get your head out of your ass Martin.

    Easy on the meds…………………………easy.

  11. Bob Bruce – you got documents proving what you’re trying to say – the PM talking points.

    Grow up – Harper lied to you and I’ll bet you never spent a moment investigating the truth.

  12. Does it matter if the senate was obstructionist or not?

    maybe i’m missing something. The only thing that this whole affair proves to me is that political parties in power try and take every advantage they possibly can while in power.

    other than the advantage of patronage, i imagine the only reason why Harper would continue to risk alienating his base (me) that hates this kinda thing is because there is some functional advantage to having a Conservative majority in the Senate. He’s just doing what he’s rallied against when he was in opposition, but it would appear that having a friendly majority in the Senate is some advantage to a sitting government, or why bother?

    as usual, i’m sick of all the promises harper made to me as a conservative voter, and then broke.

    but i’m faced with the same dilemma that so many liberal/conservative swing voters have been faced with in the last 6 elections.

    Is the harper government so bad that i’ll consider voting for the Liberals who have proven to have the same poor track record when in power?

  13. I think this exchange is very illustrative of the steadfastness of a wanting to believe a CPC narrative so badly no matter how reality counters it.

    You are right Red, the tough on crime nonsense is not support by the facts. The strange thing is that it appeals to base emotion, which is why this narrative keeps on reviving. Let us examine two bills that the CPC were leveraging for public opinion:

    C-36: The Serious Time for Serious Crime made it to debate on second reading but was adjourned on Dec. 3 by its sponsor, Conservative Senator Claude Carignan never to be called again. And guess what? Only the Government can decide which bills can be brought to debate again. I am sure though somehow “it’s the Liberals fault.”

    C-15? Well, enter Carignan again, this time though, he doesn’t seem to believe there is much ‘gutting’ of the bill. C-15 made to third reading by the way, riddled with amendments.

    The video is pretty self-explanatory.

  14. …the tough on crime nonsense is not support by the facts. The strange thing is that it appeals to base emotion…

    You can strengthen the punishment all you want, it doesn’t reduce crime rates one iota. How many friggin’ studies have shown that now? There is a logic error there that assumes criminals think like regular law-abiding, jail-fearing citizens. THEY DON’T!

    If this were true then one would expect the United States with capital punishment to have much lower homicide rates than Canada does. Everyone knows the reverse is the case, and in fact homicide rates in this country have fallen steadily ever since the hangman’s noose was officially retired.

    Back to bill C-15, if it ever became law it would overcrowd jails and put the marijuana trade squarely into the hands of organized crime. It’s bad law, and a rape of taxpayer’s wallets. When this is tabled again in the HOC, the Grits should grow a pair and oppose it this time around.

  15. Good post, R/T though I see that the point of the post, as happens, is sort of lost in the partisan rhetoric that results.

    The point, however, is clear:

    When “I” have power, stacking the Senate is perfectly acceptable;

    When “YOU” have power, it’s inappropriate and reform is needed.

    I always harken back to the attack on John Turner by PM Mulroney, where he bellowed, “You had a choice, sir.”

    Suddenly, as I’ve posted on my own, Conservative, blog.. Mulroney’s “high road” is shown to be so much hypocricy.


    And for what it’s worth, the crime bills, to begin with, are bullshit. The probable results: higher government spending, and higher probably of recurrent offenders.

    We aren’t keeping them in jail forever, and manditory sentencing is going to put people in jail who otherwise would stand a reasonable chance of getting their shit together.

    But it’s like gun control.

    It sounds good to the electorate, whether it works or not is sort of beside the point.

  16. Well, I don’t recall defending Chrétien’s appointments let alone Martin’s. My point has always been that the main spirit of the Senate, that is, to maintain institutional memory and continuity should be preserved. That has been maintained based on the ‘goodwill’ of each PM when it came to making appointments. Of course, that is hardly the case, which is a function of the Exceutive’s power, a power I have always said should be curbed.

    I am always weary of making almost every branch of government elected, Senate included. One of the hallmarks is the Senate is that it has proven to be a check against the PM with majority standing in the HoC. This, of course, is only borne in the first few years of each new PM when he has to deal with a Senate composition not in his favour. In those instances, it allowed to temper the legislative zeal of the governing party, if only for a short period of time.

    My fear is that the moment that the Senate’s ability to maintain and operate under institutional memory is diluted or even disposed, it will just be a clone of the HoC, responding the legislative whims of whoever is in power.

  17. What “partisan rhetoric” Rob? Surely the issue of whether or not the CPC is lying about the Senate’s actions with regards to their crime bills is entirely relevant to the discussion of whether the Senate is obstructing anything.

    I have a hard time thinking of many progressives against Senate reform, and they’re vocal about it in the Liberal years. It’s only natural that they’re more vocal about it during the Conservative years because the appointment of people like Runciman and Duffy is exactly what they’re afraid of.

    For what it’s worth, I’m generally against Senate reform, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t criticize Senate picks.

  18. Brad: Harper’s “creative” means of accomplishing reform through regulation and stacking is typical of someone who finds the democratic process to be avoided.

    Bob Bruce: Senate wasn’t obstructionist? Get your head out of your ass Martin.

    ..and then, in general, the topic went from whether or not the ability of the executive to stack the Senate is an appropriate use of power, went on to the so-called issue of how obstructionist, or not, the Senate is.

    I don’t think it matters, actually, I would agree with jkg.. electing a Senate on an ongoing basis seems MORE likely to politicize it, not less. A non-partisan or multi-pary selection process would seem to be a better idea.. and as R/T says, it would be nice if the ludicrous regional imbalance could be rectified.

    But don’t hold your breath on Quebec cooperating with that – or any government, Conservative, Liberal or otherwise, even taking up that cause.

  19. then, in general, the topic went from whether or not the ability of the executive to stack the Senate is an appropriate use of power, went on to the so-called issue of how obstructionist, or not, the Senate is.

    Well, mea culpa, I just wanted to throw that information in there because I thought it was relevant to the legitimacy of stacking the senate. After all, if it becomes a populist mainstay that the Senate is inherently obstructionist, it gives each successive PM justification for stacking it.

    It is an odd line of reasoning, really. The Senate is designed to scrutinize legislation and quite possibly propose amendments. The funny thing is that the Senate works along side the committees who are drafting in the HoC. So, when it actually gets to the Senate, the Senators are prepared and can expedite the process. This has happened many times in the past, and the Senate was criticized for being too fast and a rubber stamp .

    It is a perverse self-fulfilling prophecy: Hammer the Senate for being a rubber stamp, when they do get legislation through quickly. Senators are then compelled to be a little more judicious and propose amendments. Subsequently, accuse them of being obstructionist only to have them expedite the bill quickly through their Chamber. Repeat until Senate is abolished or elected.

  20. My fear is that the moment that the Senate’s ability to maintain and operate under institutional memory is diluted or even disposed, it will just be a clone of the HoC, responding the legislative whims of whoever is in power.

    A legitimate concern Rob, and I’d like to add one more. If we ever did obtain an elected senate, what does that do to the power of the other first ministers? Currently they are the main protectors of provincial interests, and our loose federation actually gives them quite a bit of power. The 10 provincial governments could be quite formidable if they ever stood together on a particular issue.

    So if we have an elected senate, are the provincial powers diminished? Are they retained, with the senate + premiers actually becoming more powerful than the House?

    It’s easy to keep yapping about senate reform for votes. However the issue quickly opens a can of worms once actual policy is tabled.

  21. The Conservatives made Bill C-15 part of the rationale for proroguing… which allows them to reconstitute Senate Committees with Conservative rubber stampers to pass Bill C-15.

    Claims of the bill being “gutted” by Liberal Senators have been repeated as nauseum in a blatant attempt to reinforce the need for senate reform and to justify Harper appointing so many Senators to prop up his agenda.

    It’s all a big chess game to Harper and the tactics employed in his lust for a majority don’t speak well about his character.

    If passed Bill C-15 will be an expensive, destructive failure for Canadians, and the Harper government knows it. Harper want’s to wring all he can out of his fear-mongering and tough-on-crime rhetoric but lately it seems more Canadians are waking up to his tactics.

    It’s all about politics with Harper, and the Canadian people end up paying for the consequences in many ways.

    Watch some witness testimony from the Bill C-15 Senate Hearing


    Recommended witness testimony:

    1) David Bratzer – an active duty police officer in Victoria, BC, and a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. http://LEAP.cc

    2) Eugene Oscapella – Ottawa lawyer and founder of Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy, http://CFDP.ca

    3) Kirk Tousaw – Lawyer and Executive Director of the Beyond Prohibition Foundation.

    4) Craig Jones – Exec Dir., John Howard Society


    Bill C-15 Senate Committee amendments explained

    TRANSCRIPTS: http://www.cannabisfacts.ca/SenateCtteeMtgs_BillC-15.html

    More info about Bill C-15:


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