Senate is a sideshow, Harper’s the problem

Proposed new rules would limit power of prime minister, increase that of MPs

Sure, change has to happen with the Senate, but far more important is the runaway power we allow our prime minister. This is what needs to be reined in if we ever want to keep straight faces when calling our country a democracy.

Stephen Harper, with his dictatorial grip on Conservative MPs, has fired up all available power tools, either allowed by our Constitution or not mentioned in it, and has kept their engines running full tilt. He has taken full advantage of his licence to:

  • appoint senators and Supreme Court justices;
  • approve or reject candidates for elections;
  • control the House of Commons by training his chosen MPs to spew propaganda-filled “talking points” to avoid meaningful debate;
  • control House of Commons committees by appointing their chairs and dictating their messages and methods, including secret sessions;
  • force passage of omnibus bills — hundreds of pages of unrelated legislation — without scrutiny;
  • prevent Parliament from examining costs of legislation before passing it;
  • muzzle free speech of civil servants and hide vital facts;
  • and most despicable of all, prorogue Parliament whenever it suits him.

Meanwhile, in a fumbling sort of way, he is trying to make political hay out of the Senate.

This is a problematic institution to be sure, but small potatoes compared to the monstrous issues facing us: broken health care, income disparity, unacceptable poverty especially in First Nations, accelerating climate change, unchecked environmental degradation, stifled scientific research, over-dependence on tar sands, failing infrastructure — as well as the overall sorry state of our so-called democracy.

The NDP, it has to be added, is also neglecting these vital matters while it exploits the Senate scandal to rake in votes.

And note that the Senate still has a tiny measure of independence from prime ministerial power.

Fixing the Senate, either by reform or abolition, would be but a flimsy band-aid when Canadian democracy needs major surgery.

A real solution involves restrictions on the prime minister.

Short of amending the Constitution, an onerous though perhaps necessary exercise, the award winning authors, Peter Aucoin, Mark Jarvis and Lori Turnbull, have proposed measures that could be achieved by simple legislation.

One of them is to adopt a formal document outlining clear government rules, including limits on what prime ministers can do, and expanded roles for individual elected Members of Parliament.

They suggest restoring the historic ability of party caucuses to dismiss their leader and choose an interim one, and to prohibit a party leader’s interference with the nomination process at election time.

While they are sympathetic to the commonly advocated idea of a fairer voting system, they conclude such a measure would not be enough to curb abuse of power by a prime minister.

The only way to do that is through well-defined directly applied laws. (Democratizing the Constitution, Peter Aucoin et al, 2011)

Regular Canadians and independent-minded politicians need to push hard on this matter. Party leaders and their associates don’t have the incentive.

Freda Davies