The U.S. debt-ceiling dance and Canadian Senate reform

Canadians and Brits have no reason to feel superior to the U.S.

Much as I know it’s bad form to give away somebody else’s kicker, I can’t resist passing along the last paragraph of William Watson’s most recent (and typically excellent) column, which is about why Canadians (and Brits) shouldn’t feel all superior about their parliamentary system just because the U.S. way of government looks so dysfunctional during its current dance with debt default:

Finally, if our system is intrinsically better, why are we about to make it more like the Americans’? If we start electing our senators, as basic democratic principles require, the Senate will become legitimate. Come the day, as it surely will, when the Commons and Senate are controlled by different parties, and we will experience gridlock, too.

Watson is referring, of course, to the Harper government’s plan to reform the Senate by setting up a system to (sort of) elect senators, who would be subject to nine-year term limits, with no chance of renewal. The fundamental question is this: How would the House settle disputes with a Senate that could claim democratic legitimacy?

Nobody knows. Tory Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, who is opposing his own party’s Senate Reform Act, raises this troubling question in my story on the issue in this week’s Maclean’s.  A defence of the bill is provided by MP Tim Uppal, Harper’s secretary of state for democratic reform, but Uppal merely asserts that an elected Senate would, I suppose out of a respect for tradition, accept that the House must remain “paramount.”

In interviewing them for the story, I didn’t ask Nolin or Uppal about the U.S. comparison. Either might claim it supports their argument. Those in favour of a more potent Canadian Senate might contend that it would provide a U.S.-style check on the enormous power of a  prime minister who enjoys a House majority. Those opposed to a revamped Senate emboldened to defy the House might point to the prospect of U.S-style gridlock.

There is another aspect of this, which Nolin touched on in a part of my interview with him that I wasn’t able to fit into the story. He pointed out that while Canada’s federal parliament wasn’t designed with an effective legislative counterbalance to the majority party in the House, the federal government is held in check, in many policy areas, by the considerable clout of the provinces.

Although the system of fed-prov conferences—both the prime minister with the premiers and federal cabinet ministers with their provincial counterparts—isn’t written into the Constitution, it’s a well-established tradition that brings provincial concerns to the centre of national politics. “That’s unique to Canada,” Nolin said. “Is it perfect? Probably, no. But it works. Do we want the new Senate to jeopardize that? Probably, no.”

As Washington provides a timely lesson in what it means to have different branches of the government square off, the Harper plan to overhaul the Canadian Senate reform deserves wider debate. Let’s hope we get it in the fall when Uppal’s bill will go to a House committee for close study.