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Today's Big Story

Harper’s Bizarre

Senate reform leaves west in the cold.

By Richard Warnica 14 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Richard Warnica is a senior editor at The Tyee.

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Newspaper editorial boards and the Canadian senate are two sides of the same coin: They’re both leftovers from another time and few know what point they serve, let alone who serves on them.

So when Stephen Harper announced his plan Wednesday for a (somewhat) elected Canadian senate, it made sense for editorialists across the country to weigh in. 

“After a century and a half, democracy will finally come to the Senate of Canada,” Harper said at a pre-campaign style open caucus meeting in Ottawa. “This bill will see voters choose their preferred candidates from to represent their provinces and territories.”

The editorialists at the National Post were first on the bandwagon. But not because they actually like the proposal. “Frankly, the Senate will still not be democratic in the literal sense,” the Post wrote. “But Mr. Harper’s proposed change, coupled with another he introduced last spring -- to limit senators’ terms to eight years -- would encourage real reform to evolve over the next decade or two.”

That theme recurred in a Sun chain editorial. “Anything would be more democratic than the current method employed to put friends of the governing party in the upper chamber,” said an editorial that appeared in London Free Press, the Edmonton Sun and other papers. “Allowing interested Canadians who qualify a chance to run for vacant positions in the Senate…is a far better solution than anything proposed by the Liberals during their last 13-year run in power -- which was nothing,”

The Globe meanwhile wrote a bait and switch editorial that purported to be about the Senate, but was really about Harper’s iron grip on that other house. “It is oddly incongruous for Mr. Harper to position himself as a champion of parliamentary reform when in government he has reverted to the same sort of high-handed tactics that he once condemned Liberal governments for using,” the Globenistas wrote in a behind the firewall piece. They added that before turning to the Senate Harper “could respect the independence of Commons committees and invest them with real oversight powers, with research budgets and professional support,  helping them to achieve that elusive “e”: effective.”

For real criticism of the bill you have to turn to people who actually sign their names when they write, like the Calgary Herald’s Don Martin. Martin argues that the bill, if passed, would be a disaster for Western Canada. “There can be no legitimacy in an electoral body where the economic powerhouse of Alberta rates far fewer seats than relatively insignificant New Brunswick,” he wrote. “Or when all four of the western provinces COMBINED only equal the Senate clout of Ontario.”

No to worry though, Martin said, the logistics of the bill are so unwieldy that it’s unlikely to ever become law. In fact, an unpassable bill may be just the issue Harper needs to collapse his government and take Canada into an election.

“Sigh. Just what we need,” Martin wrote. “A third election in three years caused by a dispute over an elected, partially reformed Senate that rarely registers as a Top 10 voter pre-occupation."


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