Populist rhetoric on Senate reform is nothing new, but this Maclean’s interview with Tim Uppal, the newly appointed minister of state for democratic reform – and the man Harper has put in charge of pushing through his Senate “reform” bill – really did bother me. If anything, it underscores just what kind of a dangerous path we are now on when it comes to the continued survival of parliamentary democracy.
As has been said numerous times, there are many problems with this current bill, which Harper has put forward in his quest to reform the upper chamber. It doesn’t specify exactly what is being addressed with a nine-year term limit, nor does it address the problems that a term limit any less than twelve years poses when it comes to a single prime minister being able to turn over virtually the entire membership of the Senate chamber. It doesn’t give any guidelines for how provinces are supposed to run their “consultative elections,” which could lead to a patchwork of processes with little to no actual accountability. (If they think Alberta’s system is a model to emulate, then they need to give their heads a shake.) It puts the onus on the provinces to pay for said “consultative elections,” presupposes that provincial parties would be running senatorial candidates (which doesn’t make any workable sense given the way the Senate operates as a regional chamber and not a “house of the provinces," which so many people seem to think it is) and does not obligate a prime minister to actually appoint those who won these “consultative elections.” And of course, it’s entirely unconstitutional and attempts to use tricky language to try to get around that particular hurdle as though the Courts are too stupid to realize that’s what Harper is trying to do.
But most of all, it lays out zero vision for what a reformed Senate is supposed to look like, what powers it is supposed to possess, what kind of deadlock-breaking mechanism it is supposed to employ (because with an empowered Senate, you can guarantee there will be deadlocks) and how this new Senate fits in with what a parliamentary democracy looks like in Canada. This is not a topic for academics to ponder while the grand inquest of the nation happens. These are fundamental questions that require answers.
However, as Maclean’s soon figured out, you can’t ask Tim Uppal about any of this, because he’ll just repeat his mantra that “the status quo is not acceptable.” Or he’ll defend the piecemeal approach (which will lead to chaos, have no doubt) by saying, “We are taking Senate reform steps that are reasonable and that are within the constitutional authority of Parliament,” (even though they’re not).
It’s Uppal’s appeal to populism that is the most galling. “These are good steps in the right direction,” he says. “We’re hearing that from Canadians across the country.” But the average citizen doesn’t know what the Senate does, not that it seems to weigh into the consideration. It’s a bit like polling people about intricate technicalities with rocket science or neurosurgery and proclaiming that if that's what the people want, we should go with, no matter that it will likely make said rocket ship explode or cause the patient permanent brain damage. And that’s exactly what’s at stake with our democratic system. This Conservative play, which Uppal is now the mouthpiece for, says that it’s just enough for people to demand “democratic legitimacy” from the Senate. It's not good enough when you consider the Senate in the totality of our parliamentary system, just as much as we don’t demand an elected Supreme Court. Appealing to the “populist wisdom” brings us back to the point about giving the people what they want as opposed to what they need. And that is a problem for democracy in the long term.