Harper versus the Constitution of Canada

Michael Johansen
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While there is only one way to change the Senate of Canada, there are many things we might change it into.
Of course abolishing it altogether, as the New Democrats propose, is certainly possible. Almost every provincial parliament started out with some kind of upper chamber. Getting rid of it was one of the first acts of most of the lower houses, although Quebec waited until the 1960s. None are missed.
However, making the federal Senate disappear could have many more consequences. The power of the provincial governments (and the possible abuse of it) is still checked by Ottawa. If the Senate was gone nothing could check the power of the federal government between elections except the Governor General - and that office has yet to prove its effectiveness in that job.
Naturally, among the strongest supporters of the Senate are senators themselves. As Labrador's own Bill Rompkey said last year (in the innocent days before Stephen Harper stumbled into his two-front war against parliamentary democracy and Canadian unity) the Senate serves a near-vital role of reviewing the actions of the House of Commons. Without it more bad legislation would pass than already goes through and fewer voices would be heard in the nation's capital.
"Canada is a regional country," Rompkey said. "You need somebody there (in Ottawa) to speak on behalf of the regions."
Abolishing the Senate, therefore, could mean throwing away a valuable tool we might come to miss very much indeed - if, for instance, a megalomaniac happens to become prime minister of a majority government.
However, reform of the Senate is needed and much can be done to make it more useful and democratic.
Surprisingly, Harper's proposals (the principles of which he recently betrayed by appointing 18 unelected people) are rather moderate. Except for his desire for candidates to be elected, Harper's changes don't vary greatly in tone or goal from what the Liberal Senator for Labrador puts forward, proposals that would probably also appeal to a certain Progressive-Conservative premier in St. John's.
"I'm not sure we should go to an overall election," Rompkey explained. "I mean if Todd (MP Todd Russell) and I had to both run in Labrador at the same time it would be a bit of a mess. Who's saying what on behalf of whom? It would be chaos, it seems to me. But if the legislature of Newfoundland - not the government, but the legislature - were able to propose names to the prime minister that he would appoint to the Senate then you would have a number of eminent Newfoundlanders and Labradorians whose names would come forward to be spokespersons for our province in the Senate. It seems to me that that's not a bad system for us to move to. We don't have to move to overall election because the representatives, our representatives in the legislature, are elected. So in a sense you're kind of electing the Senate, too."
With either choice - abolishment or some kind of reform - the final outcome is up for debate, but the way of getting to it is not. In fact, the steps on how to change the Constitution - as would be required - are clearly written into the Constitution itself. This is what the so-called prime minister seems unable to understand. Unable as he is, as always, to win a majority of support for his policies (constitutional amendments require approval by both the Senate and the House of Commons, and by at least seven provinces that represent half or more of the country's population) Harper has tried to bypass the Constitution Act and treat Senate reform as if it was a matter for simple legislation, bitterly blaming Ontario and Quebec for his plan not working when they properly point out his mistake. Instead of opening up a national debate and finding out that he might have a lot in common with Liberals and easterners on the issue, he has hunkered down in his Reform Party bunker where he's raising the threat of western alienation to impose his ideas of Senate reform - and his ideas alone - on the entire country.
No wonder he fails time after time.

Michael Johansen writes from Labrador

Organizations: Senate of Canada, House of Commons, Liberal Senator for Labrador Reform Party

Geographic location: Labrador, Quebec, Ottawa Canada St. John's Ontario

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