The Senate, Party Cooperation, and Importing American Politics
Two things have me scratching my head this week: the general excitement around killing the Senate, and some communications I’ve received from organizations that want all of the “progressive” parties to work together. I’ll start there.
First of all, it’s hard for a Green candidate to agree to “working together” with other parties, because the way it is proposed that we “work” with them is to drop out of the race altogether. The way that Greens can best support Canadian democracy, according to these groups, is to not exist. But we do exist, and the reason we exist is because we represent a real alternative to the other parties. For example, these proposals always aim to “unite the Left,” which isn’t actually true: the Liberals are a centrist party, the NDP is a leftist party, and the Green Party is generally socially progressive but fiscally and economically conservative, with policies based on practicality and wisdom rather than the political leanings of our members or constituents. We don’t define ourselves by the political spectrum at all, which in itself ought to be enough to keep us from getting lumped in with the political left.
Second, the reason they want us to go away is because of fear that our presence on the ballot will “split the vote”. The idea is simple: if a Conservative wins in a riding with only 45% of the vote, with the rest of the vote split among the Liberals, NDP, and Greens, it seems obvious that if the NDP and Greens didn’t run a candidate the rest of their voters would have voted Liberal, and therefore it is the NDP and Greens who are keeping the Liberals from winning. People have used this logic to say that “Elizabeth May is helping to elect Conservatives.” Of course, that assumes that Green voters would otherwise have voted Liberal or NDP, which is an enormous assumption. Many of my supporters have voted Conservative (or Progressive Conservative, Reform, Alliance, or Social Credit) all their lives, but are frustrated with the Harper Conservatives and have joined the Greens because they see us as a viable alternative. If the Greens weren’t there, they would have either voted Conservative, or not at all. And that’s the other point here: Greens don’t “steal” votes from leftist parties – the votes we get, we earn by engaging communities with grassroots democracy. Elizabeth May nails it when she points out that Greens draw votes from (what is sadly the largest voting block:) non-voters. When we run, more people vote.
Third, and most concerning, is that these groups that want to “unite the Left” are pushing us toward American-style democracy and a two-party system. While it’s possible for a third party or independent to run in American elections, the two main parties are so deeply entrenched that they are the only two viable options. This leads to a system that is so polarized that partisan squabbling in the House of Representatives led to a partial US government shutdown and a possible debt default that would have sent the entire world into recession. Both American parties distinguish themselves through polarizing rhetoric, yet govern almost identically, as their healthcare plans show: the Obama vs. Romney presidential election was focused on Obama’s healthcare program (Obamacare), which was almost identical to the one Mitt Romney had instituted in his own state as governor (Romneycare), but the rhetoric between them thoroughly divided the country. This type of politics is divisive and deceitful, and leads to all ideas being stewed down to a compromised position of what will appeal to roughly half the population. That’s no way to unite a country as large as ours and with our distinct cultural and language groups; we are diverse, and a diverse population with diverse ideas needs a diverse political climate. Entering a two-party system just to defeat the Conservatives is short-sighted and foolish, and will only ramp up the same negative rhetoric that the Harper Conservatives have mastered.
If we had a two-party system, every government would be a majority government. With a Prime Minister like Stephen Harper, who exercises very tight control of his MPs including how they vote and what they say in public, the government would function as an extension of the PM rather than the PM being one member of a representative body. Thank goodness there’s still a Senate to check his power!
The NDP has long argued that we should abolish the Senate, seeing appointed Senators as undemocratic. Before he was Prime Minister, Stephen Harper agreed: he argued that he would never appoint a Senator. To date, he has appointed 59 of them – more than any other Prime Minister in history. Now he’s claiming that he’ll never appoint another Senator. I don’t blame him, as several of his appointees are currently in criminal court. The reality is that reforming the Senate (e.g., to make Senators elected) would take a constitutional change that would require more than half of the provinces to agree; abolishing it would take constitutional changes that would require all of the provinces to agree; and almost everyone acknowledges that getting them all to agree would be nearly impossible. So Stephen Harper said this week that he would simply refuse to appoint any more Senators until the Senate dies or reform comes – which would also be unconstitutional, as it would lead to provinces not being proportionately represented in government. But aside from the technicalities of reforming or abolishing the Senate, is it really a good idea? Let’s look at the options.
The Conservatives have long argued for Senate reform to require that Senators be elected rather than appointed. This seems like a good pro-democracy move, but let’s look at why we have a Senate in the first place: to put a check on the power of the House of Commons. The House represents the will of the people, but the will of the people can change like the wind, and the people aren’t always the most informed. The Senate exists to provide “sober second thought” to any bill that passes the House of Commons, and Senators are supposed to be chosen from the best of us, people who thoroughly represent Canadian identity and have a track record of good judgment. They are chosen to think twice while the rest of us are only thinking once. If they were elected, they’d be just as accountable to voters as the House of Commons is, and the same people would be voting for Senators as vote for Members of Parliament. How could a Senate be elected, and therefore accountable to the will of the public, and still maintain their purpose as a check on the power of the public? An elected Senate would effectively be another House of Commons, and make our whole legislative system unnecessarily complicated and competitive. And thoroughly American, too: the U.S. Senate is elected, and serves as just another battleground between the two main parties. It’s not a system that inspires confidence in anyone’s ability to govern, because that ability to govern is constantly dependent on the other party being willing to cooperate, since at any given time the House and Senate may be held by different parties. Cooperation cannot be forced, and democracy in itself is not a good – it needs to be able to function, and in the case of the Senate democracy actually impedes its functions.
The NDP, on the other hand, want to abolish the Senate altogether. And as the Senate scandals keep coming, Canadians are more and more inclined to agree. But the answer to a corrupt or dysfunctional Senate is not NO Senate, it’s a functional Senate. And I have trouble thinking that the NDP would be happy if there were no Senate while the House of Commons is dominated by a Conservative majority, if the alternative was a non-partisan, functional Senate.
The Green Approach
That is what the Green Party supports: a functional, non-partisan, chamber of sober second thought. I think Justin Trudeau was on to something when he kicked Liberal Senators out of the Liberal caucus – Senators should not be subject to party discipline. I would also propose that Senators continue to be appointed, but that there be qualifications they must possess, and perhaps a two-stage appointment process wherein they are chosen from a pool of candidates named by the provinces (an idea worth exploring, at least). There should be clear rules of conduct and spending for Senators, of course, and they should not be shielded from the law any more than anyone else, but it is well worth our tax dollars to have a body in place who has the resources and freedom they need to evaluate legislation based on what is best for Canada rather than what voters want at the moment.
And in regard to cooperating with other parties, I’m all for real cooperation: working across party lines to move good ideas forward. Deciding ahead of time who gets to participate and who doesn’t in order to eliminate opponents is not non-partisan cooperation, it’s hyper-partisan strategy. The Green Party has consistently extended olive branches of cooperation to other parties, and they have consistently rejected them. The NDP recently suggested a coalition government with the Liberals to avoid another Conservative minority, but the Liberals rejected it. It seems that everyone is interested in cooperating when it serves their own ends, but not when the only ends it serves are those of Canadians in general. I am reminded of a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.” I don’t want credit, I want a long-term future for a Canada we can all be proud of.
This Fall, I hope that’s what you’ll be voting for: a sustainable Canada where partisan strategies don’t keep us from working together for the good of all Canadians.