Friday, June 19, 2009

Revisiting Richard and Reform

A little while ago, I posted about an article by my friend, Richard Albert. Richard has a great mind for democracy. I don't know where he comes down on specific policy points, nor do I know where he would consider himself to fall on the political spectrum (we've never actually chatted about politics), but it seems that he has a very good perspective on many political issues. He's not worrying about partisanship; he's worrying about the health of our (and others') democracy. His is certainly a good voice to have.

In my earlier note, I stated that I tended to agree with him on the main point of his article (before going off on a tangent about the Conservative government under Stephen Harper). I've thought some more about it, and I'm not sure I can totally agree with him.

The issue at hand is term limits for Senators in Canada (specifically 8-year term limits), as proposed in a new government bill. Richard notes that "term limits alone would not improve the legislative capacity of the Senate." This is undoubtedly true. He states the senate will need everything from "more powerful committees, to a more invigorated membership, and to a more equitable allocation of seats among provinces" in order to improve (not to mention an actual democratic selection process).

Further, he states,
The eight-year term limit moreover does nothing to breathe democratic legitimacy into the Senate. Quite the contrary, it continues to concentrate power in the hands of the prime minister, a lamentable trend we have seen only accelerate over the last three decades.
The first sentence is true, to a point. The second sentence is true, but perhaps beside the point. Without the 8 year term limit, we have senators appointed by Brian Mulroney. It's true that power to appoint senators is inappropriately concentrated in the PMO, but why is it worse to concentrate it in today's PMO rather than 1990's PMO? If Prime Ministers are going to appoint senators, I'd rather that we have senators appointed by Prime Ministers in this millenium. As warped as it is to leave the choice of legislators up to one man, it seems incrementally more democratic to give the population an opportunity to select someone else to re-visit those choices every now and then. It's like the sober second thought of the tyranny of the PMO.

Richard goes on to state,
The larger point, though, is that the term limits bill will do more harm than good. Instead of using Senate reform as a vehicle to diffuse power away from Ottawa and into the hands of the provinces and their citizens, the Harper government has cleverly cloaked the eight-year term limit as a critical step toward democratizing the Senate. But all it will really do is further entrench federal control over the institution that was meant to give voice to provincial concerns.
If we take off the first sentence and the last sentence and a half, I'm on board. Though I suggested above that this proposal incrementally improves the democratic legitimacy of the senate, I think the increment is too small to be of much use to society. However, I'm still unwilling to state that this is a step backwards for democracy.

Now, perhaps Richard is getting into some realpolitik sort of thing. He may very well be right that a tiny superficial step towards democratic legitimacy will placate the masses and leave us with no popular desire to continue moving towards a fully democratic senate. If this is his point, I think he has presented it improperly; he has combined the two arguments (it's a tiny step forward, but it will stop all progress) without clearly defining each, or clearly defining which argument is his focus.

Still, I don't think we've had a government more committed (even if they're barely committed) to democratizing the senate than the Harper government. I can't imagine that their intent is to foil further democratization. I think they're just trying to score points with the electorate. This isn't a point in their favour, but it doesn't mean they're an obstacle to a democratic senate.

All that being said, if this is the crux of Richard's argument (and I think it is), he's well on point:
If the Conservatives really were serious about Senate reform, they would work with the other parties to strike an all-partisan plan for new rules regulating the election, eligibility, and function of senators. But they have not chosen this course.
In his conclusion, Richard's thoughts dovetail nicely with my thoughts on a lot of the Conservative government initiatives:

"Their current approach... exposes just how far they have elevated political expedience over the larger national interest."

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