07 February 2006

Conservative misstep and Senate reform

It seems I'm not the only one to think it dishonourable for the Honourable David Emerson to abandon the party under which he was elected only two weeks ago to accept a cabinet portfolio with the party the voters in his riding so recently rejected. In addition to the predictable protests of the opposition parties, the bloggers are getting into the act by urging him to stand down and seek re-election under the new label. Harper should have known better. This doesn't make him look good.

On the other hand, it is much less objectionable to appoint a cabinet minister from the Senate, for which there is ample precedent, even if reversing this order is somewhat unusual. Yet Harper is known to favour an elected Senate, so his appointment of Fortier may not go down well with his own supporters.

If the new Prime Minister is serious about an elected Senate, and if amending our Constitution Acts is impracticable, all he need do is allow a province for which there is a vacancy to put candidates before the voters, after which he would simply appoint their first choice. My understanding is that this is his favoured strategy. However, given that Senators serve until age 75, Harper ought to make the appointment conditional upon the candidate's signing a legal document requiring him or her to stand down after, say, six years. That would bring us into line with Australia and the US, whose Senates are elected. A precedent would be established that future governments would find difficult to break.

This would, of course, empower the Senate, which would then possess democratic legitimacy and could conceivably block legislation already approved by the Commons. Short of legally curtailing the powers of the upper chamber, as Britain has done over the past century, we might do well to look at the Australian Constitution, which makes provisions for resolving a deadlock between the two chambers of that country's parliament. It would not do for the Senate to become a confidence chamber, but it ought to be able to speak up for the West and Atlantic Canada, whose interests are chronically underrepresented in the Commons.

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