Friday, May 24, 2013

Don't Waste This Crisis

There is a saying (attributed variously to Winston Churchill and Rahm Emmanuel) that one should never let a good crisis go to waste.  It means that every crisis brings with it the opportunity for a creative response.  (It's like that old saw about the Chinese word that means both "crisis" and "opportunity," except that one isn't true.)

The Canadian Senate - that festering pustule on the backside of our democracy - is having a very good crisis these days.  At least four Senators are being investigated for improper expense claims. Two of them, if the evidence holds, will be proven to be ineligible to hold their seats since they do not reside in the provinces they purport to represent. One improperly accepted a gift (or was it an interest-free loan?) from the Prime Minister's now resigned Chief of Staff in order to pay back the improperly claimed expenses and, they hoped, end the probe. A couple more Senators seem to be implicated in efforts to sweep the initial scandal under the rug. One of the four Senators has been charged with domestic violence. And that doesn't even touch the Senator who is named as a beneficiary in her husband's offshore tax avoidance scheme.

This follows last year's revelation that a former Senator continued to sit and vote in the Senate despite the fact that her party's Senate leadership knew she had been declared mentally incompetent by her physician. (Note that this item does not impugn the character of Senator Joyce Fairbairn, who suffers from dementia and has since resigned. It does, however, demonstrate a singular contempt for democracy and a singular cruelty to a respected colleague on the part of the Liberal leadership in the Senate.)

Canada's unelected and unaccountable Senate has always been an offensive blot for any Canadian with a stitch of ethical sensibility. Yet for 146 years this travesty has been allowed to continue at the insistence of Canada's old-line parties who appreciate having a means of rewarding their hacks and flacks and for providing public salaries to party campaign officials.

Yes, there have been good Senators - even outstanding Senators. One thinks of the constitutional gadfly Eugene Forsey (loyal to three different parties over the years). Even some of the partisan appointees have done good work. Consider Conservative Senator Hugh Segal's recent defence of Canadian trade unions from his own government's legislative over-reach. My own uncle, Earl Hastings, was rewarded with a summons to the Senate after a less than stellar career as a Liberal operative in Saskatchewan and Alberta, and chose to focus on issues of penal reform which would have been politically untenable for someone who needed to seek re-election.

However, a handful of exceptions among the operatives, placeholders and palace intriguers hardly justifies the anti-democratic blot on out constitution. The 105 unelected, unaccountable Senators have constitutional and legislative powers equal to our 308 democratically elected Members of Parliament. Indeed, in the life of this very Parliament, the unelected Senate defeated environmental legislation that had been passed by the House of Commons, and have been threatening to defeat another bill that passed the Commons with the support of every single party.

Former Saskatchewan Lieutenant Governor Gordon Barnhart was the Clerk of the Canadian Senate from 1989 to 1995, and in a radio interview yesterday morning, he makes it clear that the utter unaccountability, the inflated sense of entitlement and the complete contempt for Canadians is nothing new in Ottawa's red-carpeted cesspool.

So there's the crisis. Canada's Senate is so dysfunctional and so corrupt that it has come to dominate the media narrative across the country for the past two weeks, even as the bizarre antics of Toronto's possibly crack-smoking mayor have hit the US comedy circuit.

And the opportunity?

Now that everyone has noticed that the Senate is nothing but a very expensive gong show, we have an opportunity to abolish the place once and for all.

From The Tyee

There is confusion in some quarters, but constitutional scholar Ian Peach is convinced that the Senate can be abolished by the passage of a resolution by the federal House of Commons and seven provincial legislatures. Peach was previously the Dean of Law at the University of New Brunswick and an advisor to then Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow. At the last round of constitutional negotiations in the 1990s he was an advisor to then Yukin Premier Tony Penikett.

The really neat thing, however, is that we don't have to wait for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to see and sieze the opportunity. Any provincial legislature can initiate the process simply by passing the necessary resolution.  Dr. Peach suggests keeping it simple:  "Be it resolved that sections 21 to 36 of the Constitution Act, 1867 be repealed."

Those in the know suggest that there are already at least five provincial governments that would support the abolition of the Senate. Frankly, I'm surprised Stephen Harper hasn't realized that this is the perfect way to turn around the current narrative - and conveniently cast Liberal leader Justin Trudeau as the last defender of the corrupt status quo.

Four provincial legislatures are still sitting. In Manitoba, the New Democratic Party government of Greg Selinger is formally in favour of abolition. In Ontario, the Liberal government of Kathleen Wynne hasn't taken a firm position, but her Liberal predecessor had expressed personal support for abolition and the survival of Wynne's government depends on the support of the New Democrats. Despite having no seats in the New Brunswick legislature, NDP leader Dominic Cardy has been very effective at driving the political narratve in the province.

Imagine how the narrative shifts if even only one or two of those legislatures were to pass the necessary resolution over the next few weeks. If federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair challenged the Prime Minister to join the parade, anything but a yes would be political suicide. The anticipated opposition of the Trudeau Liberals would show them to be nothing but self-serving partisans with an overweaning sense of entitlement.

I note here that Toronto Star columnist Bob Hepburn offers a complementary strategy using a national referendum, noting that support for abolition has been steadily rising, even before recent events.

It's possible - just possible - that we could be rid of this constitutional embarrassment by Christmas.