One of the fantastic things about stealing another country’s system of government wholesale is that we can also take their op-eds and apply them to our own situation.
In the Guardian, Jonathan Freedland writes about that most perennial of issues in both Canada and the UK: reforming the Upper House of Parliament. It’s on the agenda in the UK for next week.
The House of Commons will be debating, as if it were a matter of controversy, a principle which most other democracies accepted a long time ago – a principle which we send our armies half way across the globe to impose on others by force. It is the principle that people should elect those who govern them.
Still, holding out for full election could mean no election. That’s what happened last time, when too many pro-reform MPs let the best become the enemy of the better: they voted down some election in favour of more election, until they had nothing. (A fully elected house and an 80% elected house both fell by an agonising three votes.) MPs can remedy that next week by voting yes more than once, to all of the three options that would create a mainly elected upper house.
There is a lesson here for us Canadians. Though our problems are more between provinces and parties, rather than MPs, the British experience can still be applied here. If everyone holds out for their ideal reforms, we will get no reform at all.
The NDP wants to abolish the Senate alltogether, the Conservatives want elections and probably a redistribution of seats, and as far as I can tell the Liberals are happy enough to continue exploiting the system as it stands today. Obviously, the can’t all have their way. Before anything else can happen, the parties in the Commons will have to find some points to agree on. Hopefully, they will eventually be able to agree that there needs to be an election in some form.
The other barrier to Senate reform is the provinces. Unlike in Britain, there are ten provinces in Canada who have a say in any changes to the constitution. And many of these provinces would like, if there have to be any changes at all, equal representation of provinces in the Senate, regardless of population.
At least the NDP plan to abolish the Senate eventually achieves the goal of an entirely democratic government, albeit by a difficult and unlikely path. Compare this with the provinces’ wishes for equal representation. If we are making these reforms for the sake of democracy, equal representation actually perpetuates the unrepresentative quality of the body. It may represent the regions, but this isn’t a democracy of regions, it is a democracy of people.
The first-past-the-post system in the Commons is bad enough, but turning the Senate into a chamber that even more poorly responds to the will of Canadians is a move in the wrong direction. Today, the Senate is subordinate to the Commons. This is at least more desirable than a Senate subordinate to the provinces. If we are actually in this to strengthen Canadian democracy, the provinces are going to have to give up their quest for more power. It’s a long shot, I know.
Once the provinces can agree that equal representation is not truly democratic and the parties can agree on the need for reform, we can move forward.