Thursday, May 27, 2010

Senate may be about to justify its existence

The Senate is, not unreasonably, the target of a lot of criticism, but every so often it does something worthwhile. It may be about to do something of this sort with the rather perverse budget bill that the Conservatives have put forward:
Rebellious Liberal senators are threatening to carve large swaths out of an omnibus Conservative budget bill, excising everything from plans to sell off Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd. to breaking Canada Post’s monopoly on overseas mail.

“The Senate has very strong views because that’s where sober second thought comes in,” Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff said Wednesday. “I can tell you, Liberal senators are steaming for very good reason. This is a terrible way to do legislation and we said so last year, we said so this year.”

Bill C-9 is a confidence matter that could bring down the government if it is defeated. For that reason, the Conservative government has stacked it with measures that the opposition is unlikely to support – none of the political parties wants to go to the polls at this juncture.

The decision to lump all of these policies is an “abuse of power” on the part of the government, Mr. Ignatieff said. “But the issue is whether you trigger an election,” he said.

The Senate, however, could hive off the items that are not budget matters without risking an election. While the decision to do that has not been taken, there is strong sentiment running in that direction.

“We’ve done it before in my time with animal cruelty legislation,” said Joseph Day of New Brunswick when asked if the Senate could split up the 900-page bill. “The Senate will do what we are constitutionally required to do.”

From the Globe. Of course, in an ideal world the elected House of Commons would be the venue for this, but this is not an ideal world.

This does raise the question of what should be done with the Senate. The idea of an unelected body with legislative powers makes many Canadians uneasy, and with good reason, but there's another way to look at it. The House of Commons represents a snapshot of the will of the people at the time of the general election; the Senate could be seen as representing the cumulative will of the people over the course of several decades. Of course, if the House were elected by proportional representation the need for an upper house would be greatly diminished. In any case, this is academic, since it's highly unlikely that any government is going to open up the Constitution in this country any time soon.

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