Friday, June 24, 2011

What is Canadian Senate Reform really about?

This week, Stephen Harper's government introduced its first post-majority stab at substantively reforming the Senate of Canada.  Going off media reports of the bill, it is an attempt to alter the nature of the Senate while not requiring a Constitutional amendment.  There is already talk of constitutional challenges to the bill by the Provinces, but putting that issue aside, I'd like to explore what the bill is supposed to do, and address what Harper hopes to get out of it.

The most important thing to understand about the Senate of Canada up to this point is that it is formally equal to the House of Commons in most aspects of its Constitutional powers, and yet lacks legitimacy to actually act like a real legislative body and has for most of its days acted as a rubber stamp to the initiatives of the government of the day.  This lack of legitimacy is attributed to the fact that Senators are appointed by the Governor-General on advice of the Prime Minister, and thus Senators have no independent mandate to actually defeat bills from the House of Commons, nor alter its legislation in any significant way.

By and large, this system has worked fairly well for Canada.  The only big complaint about it is that the Senate became largely a patronage reward system where party hacks and fundraisers could draw a pretty decent government salary and enjoy the trappings of being a Parliamentarian without having to do the whole messy "run for office" thing.  A number of Senators have become infamous in the media for lack of attendance and other misbehaviour, which has made reforming the Senate a popular issue for many.

So what does this bill do?  Two things:
  • Term limits.  Currently Senators are appointed and can stay in office until age 75.  This bill would set a 9 year, single term limit. 
  • Optional provincial elections.  The bill sets up a stronger legal mechanism for Provinces to voluntarily elect Senate candidates, who would be appointed by the PM when vacancies occur. 
While both ideas are pretty bad, it's the second one that's most dangerous.  Currently, only Alberta has held its own unrecognized Senate elections, and Harper actually did appoint one of Alberta's "elected" Senators.  A couple other provinces out west are considering holding elections too.  This is exactly what Harper is hoping for.  If even 3 or 4 provinces start electing Senators, that could be enough to fundamentally change the nature of the Senate as an institution.  Once you have a mass of "elected" Senators in the body, operating under term limits, they're going to start trying to legislate, amend bills and defeat bills.  They won't feel constrained by the chamber's lack of democratic legitimacy, because they'll claim they were elected.

What will the Senators who never won elections do?  Some will join in the crusades of the elected peers, and others will try and stand aside, but the result will be a mess.  What happens when the partially elected Senate defeats a House bill?  The public reaction will almost certainly be in favour of electing the rest of them.   However it plays out, the result will be to break the strong traditional prohibition on the Senate playing an activist role.  Once this gets going, there won't be any way to stop it. 

Now here's the question:  Why would Stephen Harper, and the Reform/Alliance western conservative base he represents want to empower the Senate?  One of the traditional complaints of Albertans is that they are "left out" and they claim "the West wants in" because of the purported underrepresentation of the West in Ottawa.  Let's take a look:

Province Pop % of pop House Seats % of House Senate Seats % of Senate Ratio to pop
ON 13210667 38.70% 106 34.40% 24 22.86% 0.59
QC 7907375 23.20% 75 24.40% 24 22.86% 0.99
BC 4530960 13.30% 36 11.70% 6 5.71% 0.43
AB 3720946 10.90% 28 9.10% 6 5.71% 0.52
MB 1235412 3.70% 14 4.50% 6 5.71% 1.54
SK 1045622 3.10% 14 4.50% 6 5.71% 1.84
NS 942506 2.80% 11 3.60% 10 9.52% 3.4
NB 751755 2.30% 10 3.20% 10 9.52% 4.14
NL 509739 1.50% 7 2.30% 6 5.71% 3.81
PE 142266 0.40% 4 1.30% 4 3.81% 9.52
NT 43759 0.10% 1 0.30% 1 0.95% 9.52
YT 34525 0.10% 1 0.30% 1 0.95% 9.52
NU 33220 0.10% 1 0.30% 1 0.95% 9.52
Canada 34108752 100.00% 308 100.00% 105 100.00% 1
(chart source: wikipedia with Senate columns added by me)

It is true that Alberta and BC are slightly underrepresented by population in the House of Commons.  But so is Ontario.  Quebec is slightly overrepresented, but hardly anything dramatic.

As the "West" includes Manitoba (MB) and Saskatchewan (SK) in the usual understanding of the term, overall the four western provinces have 31% of the population, and 29.8% of the House seats.  This is the grand "left out" claim?  The four provinces have less population than Ontario, and are proportionally better represented.  

Now look at the Senate.  Owing to some silly history, the breakdown of the Senate is particularly antiquated and the founders broke Canada into four regions, and gave each region 24 Senators.  So Ontario and Quebec got 24 each, the West got 24, and the maritimes got 24.  This has left the Senate in a particularly egregious state of misallocated represenation.  What doesn't make sense to me, is that the West is far more underrepresented in the Senate than in the House.  There the four western provinces have 22.86% of the seats.  In particular why Alberta would want to empower a body that almost cuts their influence in half versus the House is tres strange no?

It is true that the old Reform party mantra on the Senate would be to make it "triple-e" which is effective, elected and equal*.  Harper's bill could potentially achieve the first two (after a fashion) but has no provision for the third?  What's up with that? 

The only rationale that makes sense to me is one of pure ideology.  Senates, all else being equal tend to be biased toward conservative politics.  It's harder to get elected to the Senate, it's more prestigious, the terms are longer, and consequently Senators tend to be older, whiter, less female and richer.  All of which makes one more conservative.  Harper isn't trying to solve Alberta's federal under-represenation problem, he's trying to stack the deck of the Canadian system in a way that improves the outcomes for conservative ideologues.  If nothing else, adding an empowered Senate just adds a veto-point to government, which means that every bill is just that much harder to pass.  Every barrier you add, means some percentage of legislation will not make it into law, no matter how you compose that barrier.

I have written before of this basic asymmetry of interests that is too often ignored in simplistic analyses of "liberals versus conservatives" battling for the neutral levers of government.  Conservatives, at the end of the day, are usually far more happy to just have the government do nothing. They generally represent the interests of the rich, comfortable and powerful.  Such people don't need anything from government.  They'll take it if they can get it, but they don't need it to pursue their interests.  Such people are also by definition a minority and have much to fear from government interfering in their ability to draw undue rents from the less powerful.  Knowing nothing else about the issues or system, in this calculus Conservatives would prefer a government that is harder to operate than one that is easier to use to effect change. 

I know a lot of Canadians detest the idea of a bunch of pampered hacks drawing government salaries until 75 for no expectation of work.  This, I think, is the core of the popularity of electing the Senate.  But that's no reason to empower our Senate to interfere in the business of governing.  If you don't like the hacks, the solution is simple, abolish the senate like the NDP have been saying for years.  Canada hasn't needed the Senate for much up to now, what exactly is electing the Senate supposed to solve?  If you resent what they cost now, just wait until they feel democratically empowered to govern. 

It's important to understand this, because on the basis of the age-old western complaints, Harper's bill makes very little sense.  He may hope that a rebalancing of the Senators could come down the road, but that for sure would require a constitutional amendment.   The current allocation of Senators could end up being permanent.  PEI has 9 times the number of Senators their population would otherwise justify.  Think they're going to give up 3 Senators without a fight? 

* -I detest the idea of allocating identical Senate seats to each province "equal" - I see no reason to replicate the worst aspects of the American system, where the 500,000 people of Wyoming elect the same 2 Senators that the 37,000,000 people of Califnoria get to.  That's about as un-equal as you can get.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Warming Wednesdays: Why isn't Canada better on Climate Change?

Even before the current government, Canada has not exactly smothered itself in glory on the Climate Change file.  While the Chretien Liberal government did ratify Kyoto, they never actually took action to implement it and actually reduce emissions.  While plenty has been written rightly scolding both Chretien and Martin for their lack of action, it must be said that there really wasn't a lot of public support for it.  Rather than rehashing the failures of elites, I think this lack of groundswell is somewhat noteworthy given how close Australia is to implementing its own national carbon pricing scheme.  While some would hand wave about the impact of Canada's oil patch, Australia has huge coal reserves, and pricing carbon will make them seriously unhappy

While there are many things going on, I'm going to submit that this map really must be a signifiant part of the story:


If you know anything about Canada, what this map tells you is that almost all the warming is happening where people aren't.  Here's a map of Canadian population density:

Even this doesn't tell the story as well as I'd like, that blob by the Great Lakes in southern Ontario stretching accross into Quebec is where something close to 50% of Canadians live.

Let's look at the climate situation in Australia:


And where are Australia's people?

Something fairly similar to Canada can be said about America, at least with respect to most of the warming not impacting the bulk of the population, but I wouldn't want to underestimate the impact of the powerful interests funding the denial machine in the US.  Not that these are absent from Canada or Australia, but basic acceptance of science is so much more prevalent in both, so the impact of the denial machine can't really be the decisive factor.

I hate to think things have to become acute before there will be a public groundswell for action, but if you were trying to distribute the warming in Canada in the least politically impactful way, it would look something like that map above.

Meanwhile, if you stick to the national average temperatures in relation to the norm:

Grim and grimmer.