Empty prom­ises

The Compass - - EDITORIAL - Rus­sell Wanger­sky Rus­sell Wanger­sky is TC Media’s At­lantic re­gional colum­nist. He can be reached at rus­sell.wanger­sky@tc.tc Twit­ter @Wanger­sky.

There’s prob­a­bly no bet­ter prom­ise for a politi­cian than one they make know­ing that the courts will keep them from de­liv­er­ing.

Welcome to the fed­eral elec­tion cam­paign, and the Se­nate.

As we go into the cur­rent elec­tion, at least two fed­eral prime min­is­te­rial can­di­dates have made prom­ises about the Se­nate: Prime Min­is­ter Stephen Harper has said he won’t fill Se­nate seats, thus killing the place by at­tri­tion, while Tom Mul­cair has said he’ll get rid of the Se­nate out­right.

Both are angling for pop­u­lar sup­port based on the gen­eral dis­ap­proval Cana­di­ans feel for the well-dis­graced up­per cham­ber, but both also know that nei­ther of their op­tions will re­ally work.

James McGrath, a nine-time Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive mem­ber of Par­lia­ment from New­found­land and a full-time prag­ma­tist — and if that’s not enough cred­i­bil­ity, a man who ac­tu­ally turned down a Se­nate seat when it was of­fered — points out that the can­di­dates had bet­ter have a Plan B. And they should. Why? Nei­ther Harper’s nor Mul­cair’s stated po­si­tions ac­tu­ally fix any­thing. Harper’s de­ci­sion to just not ap­point any more sen­a­tors is, in fact, a sign that he’s will­ing to vi­o­late the Cana­dian Con­sti­tu­tion to get his own way: the Con­sti­tu­tion says that the Gover­nor Gen­eral, on the ad­vice of the prime min­is­ter, “shall … sum­mon qual­i­fied per­sons to the Se­nate” with the prime min­is­ter’s ad­vice.

“Shall” does not mean “may not,” or “when the prime min­is­ter feels like i,t if he ever does.” And Mul­cair’s ap­proach? Good frig­ging luck there — you can prom­ise that ev­ery­one will have their own money tree, too, but it doesn’t mean you can in­vent such a thing. ( Justin Trudeau has promised re­form and has pitched sen­a­tors out of the Lib­eral party, but hasn’t made the de­tails clear yet.)

The Supreme Court has al­ready made it abun­dantly clear that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment will need the sup­port of seven prov­inces with half the coun­try’s pop­u­la­tion in or­der to in­tro­duce even changes as sim­ple as hav­ing term lim­its or elected sen­a­tors.

And let’s face it: there isn’t a pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ment in this coun­try that doesn’t view any sort of con­sti­tu­tional change as pri­mar­ily an op­por­tu­nity to stuff its pock­ets with any fed­eral ben­e­fits it can de­mand or, frankly, ex­tort.

“Hello, premier of Man­i­toba, it’s the fed­eral gov­ern­ment, we’d like your help to change the Se­nate.”

“Well, OK, but in re­turn, we want a Sparkle Spiro­graph, an RV, a PS4 — oh, and $34 bil­lion in no-stringsat­tached gravy — sorry, ru­ral de­vel­op­ment money. And a pony. And we’ve heard you’re giv­ing Nova Sco- tia a free pass to the cir­cus. We want that, too.”

You get the idea — and there would still be at least six pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments left to call.

But back to Plan B. McGrath’s idea is that pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ments could sub­mit a list of five names ev­ery time a seat opens in the Up­per Cham­ber, and that the fed­eral gov­ern­ment could then make a choice from among those names.

It wouldn’t elim­i­nate pol­i­tics from the Se­nate equa­tion, but it would be bet­ter than hav­ing the prime min­is­ter stuff the cham­ber with cronies, press as­sis­tants, bag­men and hacks — the kind of ap­point­ment strat­egy, by the way, that has made the Se­nate ex­actly what it cur­rently is. If you spend a decade fla­grantly uri­nat­ing in a well, it’s disin­gen­u­ous to then claim that you’re up­set be­cause the wa­ter’s con­tam­i­nated and no one can drink it any­more.

If gov­ern­ments ac­tu­ally ap­pointed qual­i­fied, ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple to re­view leg­is­la­tion and seek to im­prove it, we might ac­tu­ally end up with some­thing that, well, works. Too bad we didn’t have some­thing that worked when the Harper gov­ern­ment was pass­ing Bill C-51.

The Se­nate is, for all prac­ti­cal pur­poses, here to stay. Let’s at least try to make it bet­ter.

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