While many are disenchanted with Parliament these days, Stanley H. Hartt writes in the Ottawa Citizen that certain proposals to fix the ways Senators are appointed and MPs are elected will cause more problems than they will solve.
This column is based on an article that originally appeared in Inside Policy.
By Stanley Herbert Hartt, August 1, 2015
The prime minister has declared a moratorium on Senate appointments, seeing this as a way to put pressure on the provinces to agree to changes to, or elimination of, the Senate. Of course, the interests of various provinces regarding the Senate differ. Whether this is a sustainable strategy, or whether Stephen Harper will ultimately be obliged to shore up his dwindling majority in the chamber if the provinces don’t blink is a matter of speculation. Some even argue that the Prime Minister has a constitutional obligation to fill vacancies eventually.
Justin Trudeau has declared that Senators would no longer sit in the Liberal caucus. More recently, his party has pledged to “… stand for an open, transparent and non-partisan approach to appointing Senators … developed working with experts and informed by other non-partisan appointment processes …”
But unless Liberals propose to limit the Senate’s constitutional right to adopt, amend or reject statutes, the roster of candidates would need to include persons who espouse the political agenda of the government, since otherwise the will of the voters could be frustrated by these illustrious unelected philosopher kings. It is a serious thing to insert a House of “the best and the brightest” directly into our deliberative lawmaking machinery.
Another big idea for reform, proportional representation, is held by some to be better than our “first past the post” system because, allegedly, some votes count more than others in elections by plurality. But if the Senate candidates selected by Trudeau’s princes of prestige don’t feel any onus to adopt laws approved by the representatives of the people, then no one’s vote will count at all. This is an anti-democratic idea whose time has definitely not come.
The Liberal leader promises that, if his party forms the government after Oct. 19, this would be the last federal election held under the current electoral system. A special, all-party parliamentary committee would examine proportional representation and other possible replacements for Canada’s federal electoral process.
The system mandated by the Canada Elections Act does permit a party that garners less than 40 per cent of the national popular vote to win a majority government. This was not some constitutional blunder. We have intentionally opted to bias our election process towards the stability of majority outcomes. This fits well with our system of responsible government, where the executive branch must retain the support of the House, failing which, on any matter of confidence, the government falls. Dissolution leads to an election where the people ideally select representatives who can muster sufficient support to govern.
Countries where proportional representation is practised suffer the instability of coalitions, where political horse trading inevitably trumps the public good. Do the experts of electoral Eden really prefer chaos and dysfunctionality?
Note that NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has also leapt onto the PR bandwagon. Remember the time when the Liberals were guaranteed a free pass to power by the divided right of centre of our political spectrum? Once the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative parties got their acts together and merged, things have turned out differently for the left. But under PR, the Liberals and the NDP don’t have to merge. They can merely propose a coalition.
Under proportional representation, the Liberals and NDP could form coalitions based solely on numbers derived from the national popular vote. It would test living memory to try to recall the last time a nation’s electoral system was modified to suit the ambitions of one or more political formations. Be careful what you wish for.
Stanley Herbert Hartt is a lawyer and businessman. He has previously served as deputy minister of finance and chief of staff in the office of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. This piece is based on an article for Inside Policy, the magazine of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute (macdonaldlaurier.ca)