I’m intrigued by the battle lines drawn over the Senate’s recent decision to reject a terrible and churlish piece of legislation which would attempt to impose an improper and hypocritical set of financial disclosure regulations onto unions — only unions — that don’t apply to charities, corporations, political parties, or even the government itself. A great number of people commenced exulting over the decision of the Senate to stand up to Harper.
This is wrong, friends. Terribly wrong. An unelected body should only reject legislation which is clearly out of order, unconstitutional, or so far beyond the pale of normal democratic and scientifically informed modern society that it is obviously unthinkable. This bill, offensive as many of us may find it, was probably none of those things. The cheeky way in which the Senate did this actually makes it worse — catapulting it back to the House of Commons with a saucy amendment raising the disclosure limits to the same absurdly loose ones that the Harper government recently proposed to impose on itself via its appalling hatchet job on now-independent MP Brent Rathgeber’s private member’s bill.
Those who think this is good news should consider what happens in three years when, if the present polls are any indication, Stephen Harper’s Conservatives will be on the opposition benches in the House of Commons, while Harper-appointed Senators will form the balance of power in the Senate. Do you suppose it would be any more appropriate if Harper’s Conservative Senators blocked a Liberal or NDP government bill that Conservatives found unsettling? They could do so, just the same way they blocked the union bill.
Ah, say Conservatives (and intelligent commentators): we can solve this problem. If the Senate wants to behave like proper legislators, then make them proper legislators, says Andrew Coyne. By that, he means: make them elected.
But this is even worse. As matters stand, the Senate and the House of Commons are officially equal, but the Senate is supposed to defer to the House of Commons because the Commons is democratically elected. (On the union bill, the Senate refused to defer.) If both the Senate and the Commons are elected, then they will be officially equal, period. There will be no reason for the Senate to defer to the Commons.
In which case, it is a certainty that sooner or later (but probably sooner), you will have a situation where one party holds the balance of power in the House of Commons, while a second party holds a balance in the Senate. When that happens, who shall form the government? More importantly, what happens when legislative gridlock results?
There are two solutions to that problem. In the American system, legislative gridlock happens all the time. But the President sits above the legislative houses. His job is assured, regardless of what happens in the parliament. In the absence of new legislation, the President can carry on most of the business of the country through regulations.
But in the Canadian system, the prime minister must have a seat in the Parliament, and his government must have the confidence of the chamber, or his government must resign. Except that if you make both the Senate and the Commons equal and elected, that can’t happen. What happens when the Prime Minister wins the confidence of one chamber, but not of the other one? What if one chamber demands his resignation, and the other doesn’t?
It’s alarming that the Harper government didn’t even begin to consider these questions when they tabled their preposterous proposal for a banana-republic-style “electoral” system for the Senate. That makes me think they weren’t serious about seeing it pass anyways. But the point is, such legislation must not pass. If the Senate were going to block any bill, it would be that one. (But it’s never come to them, so the point is moot.)