Three big issues emerged in the past week in Canadian politics — and in my opinion, the government struck out on all three: the Supreme Court’s ruling on Senate reform, the controversy over the Foreign Workers’ program, and Ottawa’s so-called “Fair Elections Act.
In Canada, the Senate is treated something like the weather. Everybody talks about it but nobody (well, almost nobody) does anything about it.
The Supreme Court spoke on Friday, answering a reference on several questions it had been sent by Prime Minister Harper. He asked if parliament alone could abolish the Senate, as well as questions on holding elections to determine Senate nominees, and limiting the terms of Senators (now to age 75).
In essence, the Court said, “No, no, and no again.” You can’t do any of these, the Prime Minister was told without unanimous or near unanimous agreement of all provinces, plus the House of Commons and the Senate itself. The decision marked about the sixth time in recent months that the Court (made up of mostly Harper appointees) has slapped down the government.
So what does it all mean? Mainly, that it’s time to get the Senate back to its original purpose — as a chamber of sober second thought, with the duty of protecting Canadians against the excesses of a government emboldened by a Parliamentary majority..
The only action we’ve seen so far that would move in that direction is Liberal leader Justin Trudeau’s decision to cast Liberal senators out of his party’s caucus and require them to sit as independents — even though they still call themselves Senate Liberals. Trudeau would have future Prime Ministers make non-partisan appointments from a list of names drawn up by a special committee. The idea is to get outstanding Canadians into the Senate, not just party hacks and bagmen as is currently the case.
Even that proposal could run into trouble with the Supreme Court, if it required the PM to limit himself to those choices. Can’t interfere with any of the present rules of the Senate, the Court said, without revising the constitution . That’s something most Canadian politicians are loathe to attempt. Perhaps a saw-off would let the PM make his own choices while also picking from a select list of recommended appointees.
Conventional wisdom has it that it would be impossible to get the agreement of all the provinces to any particular change in the status of the Senate. Why so? Why not try? Why not put a referendum to the people, asking if they want to abolish the Senate? If it passed by a majority in every province — a very likely possibility — surely no premier would dare stand in the way of the people’s will.
The Foreign Workers’ mishmash
A mishmash it is, with increasing evidence that some employers are using the scheme to bring in cheap foreign labour while freezing Canadians out of jobs. Especially in the restaurant industry. Employment Minister Jason Kenney says the government wants the restaurant industry to raise wages, provide better working conditions, and do more to train workers. Traditionally, pay rises when jobs become hard to fill. Not under this scheme. The Foreign Workers’ program as it now operates provides no incentive to do any of the above. To the contrary, it is an encouragement to make NONE of these reforms. According to the C.D. Howe Institute, which studied the effects of the program in B.C. and Alberta, it has caused a rise in unemployment in both provinces.
And it’s not just the restaurant industry. We’ve seen examples of Canadians being phased out in favour of temporary foreign workers in both the information technology industry and banking. To say nothing of the shift of jobs to offshore locations.
Minister Kenney has put a freeze on the restaurant industry’s use of the program. For now. Perhaps the whole program should be put on hold while an independent inquiry looks at how it could be improved.
A Climb-down on the “Fair” Elections Act
The navigator of this bill, Democratic Reform Minister Pierre Poilievre, had called it “perfect.” Like the late and unlamented Charter of Values in Quebec, it was intended to solve problems where none exist. Such as assumed election fraud by ineligible voters being allowed to vote after being vouched for by a neighbour. Now, after weeks of controversy and almost unanimous condemnation by election experts, the media, and the opposition parties, the Harper government says it will accept some key amendments.
It was suspected all along that the main purpose of the bill was to make voting more difficult for transient groups such as university students, aboriginals and low-income people — most of whom would be expected to vote some way other than Conservative.
The climb-down, if it turns out to be indeed that, shows that even a majority government where the Prime Minister has quasi-dictatorial powers, can be forced to listen to public opinion.
We’ve been waiting for Justin Trudeau to make the big moves of which we know he’s capable. This morning (01/29/13) he took an important first step by cutting all Liberal Senators loose from the parliamentary caucus, thereby committing himself to a non-partisan Senate.
For those of us who have regarded the Canadian Senate in its present form as a useless and costly appendage, Trudeau’s decision represents a dramatic break with the past. Not as good as abolishing the Senate entirely, perhaps, but at least it’s a formula to create a more meaningful, respectful, and effective “chamber of sober second thought.”
Under Trudeau’s proposal. future Senate appointments would be made from a process similar to that used now to award the Order of Canada to distinguished Canadians. Gone would be the days of filling the Senate with tired party hacks, bagmen, and assorted creatures obliged to follow the Prime Minister’s orders.
Of course, the Conservatives don’t see it this way. They say they’d like Senators to be elected, but as Trudeau points out, that’s virtually impossible without getting involved in a long, tiresome, and potentially pointless Constitutional negotiation between Ottawa and the provinces. The Supreme Court is now hearing Ottawa’s referral on Senate matters but whatever it decides, it’s unlikely the Court will find any magic formula to shake up the Senate in a painless and effective fashion.
That’s why Justin Trudeau’s proposal is so exciting.
“I have come to believe that the Senate must be non-partisan,” Mr. Trudeau said at his news conference. “Composed merely of thoughtful individuals representing the varied values, perspectives and identities of this great country. Independent from any particular political brand.”
“I challenge the Prime Minister to match this action,” said Mr. Trudeau. “As the majority party in the Senate, immediate and comprehensive change is in Conservative hands. I’m calling on the Prime Minister to do the right thing. To join us in making Senators independent of political parties and end partisanship in the Senate.”
So who could we expect to see in the Senate if Justin Trudeau were to become Prime Minister and have the opportunity to implement his reform plan?
There’s no shortage of excellent candidates. Here I offer up a few suggestions:
- Chris Hadfield, Canada’s thoughtful and smart ex-commander of the International Space Station
- Jack Diamond, the brilliant Toronto architect who understands the connection between city-building and saving the environment
- Margaret Atwood, author and advocate of progressive ideas
- Prem Watsa, the brilliant chief of Fairfax Holdings, a man clued into the need to build world-class Canadian tech companies
- Heather Reisman, who’s running the big Chapters-Indigo book chain
- Marc Carney, ex-governor of the Bank of Canda (now at the Bank of England)
- Kirstine Stewart, ex of the CBC, now head of Twitter in Canada
- Pierre Beaudoin, CEO of Bombardier, the train and plane builder
- Mike Lazaridis, far-seeing co-founder of Blackberry
Imagine what a Senate made up of these personalities and others like them would look and sound like! Freed of the obligation to follow orders of the Prime Minister. Equipped with the long-standing Senate authority to review Parliamentary legislation, and suggest changes where it sees fit.
Perhaps we’d then get serious discussion of important issues — like how to educate Canadians for the 21st century, how to reduce the wastage of lives trapped in our prisons, or how to reclaim Canada’s position in the world as a tolerant, fair-minded, progressive contributor to the family of nations. Ideas on how to renew Canada.
In the short term, it will be instructive to see how the 32 former Liberal Senators conduct themselves in the Red Chamber. More significantly, Justin Trudeau’s proposals represent a break with the traditional tired politics of the old Canada. A first step toward renewing this great country to make it capable of facing the challenges we see ahead.
Trudeau’s new idea should play well with voters. He has put forward an innovative policy in a positive, forthright manner. Just as he has called for the legalization of marijuana, he is breaking new ground while answering critics who have derided him for not putting out policy ideas.
Justin Trudeau’s proposals offer a welcome contrast to the tired, personality-driven dirty politics so cleverly practiced by the Harper government. Perhaps he really has found a way to do politic differently.