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The National Post’s Potemkin Parliament

This Magazine Staff

Imagine the following scenario: In a bid to make Parliament more “democratic”, the government decides that it will no longer independently debate policy, draft and introduce legislation, submit a budget, or make executive decisions without the explicit say-so of “the people”. All proposals would have to come from “the citizens” and would be subject to ratification only by referendum. Under this regime, the federal government would still exist. There would still be the illusion of a Parliament, bills would be debated and voted on, sent to the Senate and back to the House, then on to the GG for final authorization. Except it would be a Potemkin Parliament, because, in reality, the 308 MPs would agree to only debate and pass those bills that had already been proposed and then voted on by the people in a referendum. The entire federal superstructure would become a mere cipher for the “will of the people.”
Here’s the question. Despite the fact that this scenario might conform with the strict requirements of the constitution, is there any sense in which Canada would still be considered a representative democracy, having a constitution “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom”? I submit that the answer is no. Parliamentary democracy is not just a formal procedure for taking decisions, it is also a normative institution, containing a principled allocation of powers. Change that allocation, and you change the constitution.
Which brings us to last week’s appointment of 9 Senators by Paul Martin. I don’t have much to say on the actual appointments, except that Romeo Dallaire heading off to the Red Chamber is sad because now he won’t be Governor General, like I had hoped. The rest of them seem ok, although it is too bad they have to share a legislative chamber with losers like Mac Harb.
But what about the manner of their appointment? They were, of course, named to the Senate by the Prime Minister, in accordance with the constitution. The PM didn’t name any of Alberta’s four “senators in waiting,” who were “elected” in a provincial vote. Paul Martin has said that, while he favours senate reform, he isn’t going to proceed without a consensus amongst the provinces on how to proceed. That is as it should be. The constitution says what it says, and if we want to change it, well, it has an amending formula.
But that’s too much work for the editorial writers at the National Post. In Saturday’s edition, they called on the Prime Minister to help eliminate the “democratic deficit” by following Stephen Harper’s suggestion to simply agree to appoint the senators in waiting. Here’s the crucial bit: According to the Post, “the Prime Minister would still technically retain appointment rights, but in provinces where votes had been held to choose their senators, he would respect the wishes of the electorate.”
Everyone clear? The Prime Minister would substitute the results of a plebiscite for one of his constitutional powers of appointment. But this wouldn’t be unconstitutional, because he would “technically” retain the power of appointment.
This is an obscenity. The National Post is suggesting, in the name of democracy, that the Prime Minister arbitrarily and unilaterally amend the constitution. They are proposing that the Prime Minister do an end-run around the constitution, visit a fraud upon the constitution, because a real amendment “could lead to extremely divisive debate.”
Really? You mean to say, there is no agreement in the country on how the senators should make their way to the Red Chamber? That’s a shame.
I’m not claiming that the current system is the best one possible, although I suspect that it is. Anyone looking for an excellent debunking of the Alberta demands — on democratic grounds — should check out Gordon Gibson’s recent report to the Fraser Institute. Key point: How is it democratic to elect people to an office for life, with no mechanism for recall? We don’t do that for the House of Commons, why would we do it for the Senate, which has virtually identical powers to the House?
But the deeper point is this: We have a constitution for a reason. The allocation of powers was not due to some arbitrary set decisions by the fathers of confederation. Notably, they spent more time debating the senate than any other constitutional topic. Furthermore, it took Canada 115 years to come to an agreement on how we should amend our own constitution.
But over in National Post la-la land, that’s nothing to sweat over. The constitution is just a bunch of words, after all, a mere set of technicalities. If we can’t change the words, we’ll just change their meaning. In the conservative fantasies of National Post editorialists, “plebiscite” can mean “Prime Ministerial appointment,” and representative democracy can mean Potemkin Parliament.
At least we know, now, what democracy in Alberta means. It is a fraud. A farrago of nonsense.

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