A Suggestion for Jack

Stephen Harper is a master at carrying out incremental destruction – one step at a time he’s dismantling anything and everybody that gets in his way.

But hey, Jack Layton has been advocating a little destruction himself — and not so incremental.  Jack wants to abolish the Senate.  Close it down.  Shut the doors.

I know Jack has just had surgery, and I wish him well — but the surgery he’s advocating for the Senate is over the top. Or off the top.  Decapitation is a bit draconian.

I agree that throughout the years the Liberals and the Tories have badly abused the Senate but is that any excuse to kill the old harlot?  Right now the Harper gang is abusing the House of Commons but Jack’s cry is for the House “to work”, not to kill it.

Let’s make both Houses work.

I’m sure Jack knows full well that shutting the Senate doors would be a constitutional nightmare and that it is not going to happen. And I expect he also knows, deep in his heart, that the Senate has one hell of a lot of potential for good if only the blasted system was rejigged. (By the way, full disclosure – I’m a member of the NDP)

Personally, I like incremental reform of  governing institutions  – as opposed to Harper’s bite-at-a-time destruction and, in this case only, Jack’s desire to use strangulation..

Of course everybody (a nicely loose generality) has been calling for Senate reform ever since the dear old dog was born back in 1867.  I have a little personal perspective. The very first TV network public affairs show that I wrote and directed was about the need for Senate reform, and that was back in 1960.

Granted, I was pretty easily impressed back in those days.  As late as 1987 I went on a little rant and was still somewhat naive about the Senate —  as you can tell from the title of said rant. 

Our Undemocratic Champions

Are we going to swallow Mulroney’s hog wash about the undemocratic Senate interfering with the duly elected legislators?  It’s true that appointing senators instead of electing them is far from democratic, but it’s rock solid constitutional. [….]

Are we going to swallow the bilge voiced on the air recently by a senior staff member of the Globe and Mail who said the senators have “no moral right” to block [legislation]?  Blocking legislation of which they disapprove is in their job specifications!  What they have no moral right to do is to accept their appointment, take their money, and NOT do their job. [….]

The Senate can’t block legislation forever but it can hold the bridge long enough for the electorate to get into the fray.  Under our system, when a prime minister has the enormous and docile majority that Mulroney has he can do virtually anything he wants to do, subject only to the courts (undemocratically appointed, by the way) AND the Senate.

The idea of the Senate has always made sense, and it’s twofold.

First, part of the idea was to provide some way to put at least a temporary check on a runaway Government manipulating the House of Commons.  It was supposed to provide a way for committees composed of knowledgeable and experienced men and women to take a good look at legislation that may have been too hastily processed by the House and, if not block it, suggest amendments. It was supposed to be the chamber for “sober second thought”.  Sure, laugh.  Everybody does. But think about the idea.

Second, the idea was that the Senate represents provinces and regions, not parties.  The idea was to protect smaller population  units like, say, the Maritimes or the West, from  being overwhelmed by an Ontario or Quebec.  Not a bad notion.

But surely just because the intent has too often been subverted doesn’t mean abolish it!  Reform the blasted institution.

To begin with, abolish  Parties.  I don’t mean in general, I mean in the Senate.

Party leaders and Party whips and Party-Above-All loyalties have no business being in the Senate.  Away with them.  The Senate should be one big committee (with sub-committees) dedicated to reaching consensus on matters of national and regional importance.

With political will, that reform could be done overnight.  There’s no constitutional problems that I know of.  In the Constitution the blasted Parties don’t even exist, not even for the House of Commons! If the Parties won’t clear their organizational selves out of the Senate maybe your referendum, Jack, should call for their abolition from the Senate. We the people might warm up to that. And, since I enjoy a good paradox, let’s not forget the fact that the position of Prime Minister is not, as far as I can see, even mentioned in our Constitution.

The fact that Parties and Prime Ministers aren’t mentioned in the Constitution doesn’t make them un-constitutional but simply non-consititutional.  It appears to me that reform simply requires political will.

As for the system of appointments being totally in the hands of a non-constitutional Prime Minister – well both the Liberals and the Conservatives have made the appointment process about as stupid and corrupt as one can get. Almost any change, whether by appointment or election, could hardly be worse that the present one. And again, since the current system apparently doesn’t exist constitutionally there should be no constitutional problem in changing it.  All it needs is political will.  Consensus. A cleverly worded referendum, Jack, could produce a club that would facilitate that consensus.

But wait –  I’m not done.  I’ve been holding back on the big one.

The most sweeping and easily achieved improvement to the appointment system and to the Senate itself would be to mandate that the Senate must be composed 50% of women.  Do it by attrition.  As each seat becomes vacant it would have to be filled by a woman until parity is reached. That alone would put a crimp into Party machinery.

I can see it now.  “Do you agree that 50% of the Senate must be women?”  Wouldn’t that look great on a referendum ballot?

It’s yours, Jack.  Run with it.

Oh — wait.  One other little item.  I forgot to mention that one other idea behind the Senate was to ensure that the establishment elite would be able to keep control of us, the unwashed.  So okay, let’s think about it.

First, don’t hamstring senators by a short term.  The short term is counter-productive.  Let them serve until age 75 .   Give them a pension, too.  How magnanimous can one be? BUT, a condition of appointment for the whole group of them,  men and women alike, should be complete ineligibility for any corporate directorships, and the current crop would have to discard their directorships.

Hey, Jack, do you want help in writing a referendum question on that one?

Our Undemocratic Champions
From Down Paradox Lane
Lindsay This week, August 25th, 1987
Copyright © Munroe Scott

About Munroe Scott

Munroe Scott is a veteran of the freelance writing world.
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2 Responses to A Suggestion for Jack

  1. Roy Brady says:

    I agree almost totally with you, Munroe. Ah, what’s happening! The Prime Minister,
    or any party official, should no longer be allowed to select Senators. Because we need some time to get agreement on a process to select – I would prefer directly elect – Senators from lists of candidates running on their less partisan abilities and professed commitment, could we use one of Harper’s original recommendations and have maximum eight-year terms and an ending point for current Senators. This would allow, at that point, to start fresh with a new Senate to accomplish what you have ably set out as the real purpose of second chamber. The Senate would become a citizens’ body, not beholden to any political party, at least upfront.

  2. Munroe Scott says:

    It seems to me that the term is one of the trickiest items. Maybe 8 years as you say, but if s 45 year old is appointed (or elected) he/she is either back looking for a job at 53 or retiring on a Senate pension. Neither seems satisfactory to me. Makes it difficult to get younger bloods into the Senate if they’re destroying their first career. I’d rather see them serve right through to at least 65 rather than sponge on a pension. But as I say, it’s tricky.

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