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Donít condemn Harper for playing by the old rules. It matters more how he will change them. Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 13 February 2006

Week one for the new government and all hell breaks loose.

Many people are angry -- even seething -- about Harper’s cabinet picks, especially Vancouver turncoat David Emerson and new Montreal senator Michael Fortier.

I share their concerns. But what can be done?

According to our Constitution, Emerson serves the people of Vancouver Kingsway as their representative in Parliament. How he does it -- including which party he’s in -- is between him and them. It’s no one else’s business.

Some people are demanding there be a law barring MPs from joining another party. Why? Parties and leaders are already too strong. This would just make individual MPs even weaker, and voters with them.
Some are saying there should always be a mandatory by-election. Why? When 66 Alliance MPs and 12 Progressive Conservatives joined a new party in 2004, should there have been 78 by-elections?
The only sensible solution is a law that gives voters a realistic right of recall when their MP leaves the party they elected him to serve, or gives other reasons of clear cause -- stealing rings, etc.

But let’s not forget, they may not care. They may even approve, as they plainly did in Belinda Stronach’s riding of Newmarket-Aurora.

Likewise, let’s not spend too much time fuming about Harper appointing a new Conservative senator, Michael Fortier.

Yes, it should concern us that Harper chose expediency over principle even before he took his oath of office.

But it should concern us far more that the Conservatives are talking about making Senate elections an entirely federal affair, consisting of federal party candidates running in national elections.

This would create a Senate in many ways even worse than the one we’ve got.

The Constitution says that senators represent provinces. Not national parties, national leaders and national governments. Provinces.

True, the Senate is a federal House. But provinces make up the federation.

For this reason, it’s crucial that Senate candidates be elected in provincial elections using provincial parties and election rules -- as they are in Alberta.

Of course, the last thing a strong-minded leader like Harper may want (any more than Chretien, Trudeau, Mulroney or Martin would have wanted) is an elected Upper House over which he has no control.

He can intimidate his own MPs into supporting bad policy. He signs their nomination papers. But he couldn’t intimidate provincially-elected senators. They wouldn’t answer to him.

Instead he would have to actually persuade provincially-elected senators that his legislation does not harm provincial interests and is good for the country.

“You’d have gridlock!” protest the defenders of the present elected dictatorship. “Nothing would get through.”

But they never explain how independent senates haven’t prevented the U.S. and Switzerland from succeeding better than we have. In neither does the goverment have political control.

Stephen Harper didn’t invent the rules he’s required to play by for now. I suggest we cut him some slack, and focus instead on how he intends to change those rules when he gets his chance.

With such a weak minority, his promised democratic reforms may have to wait until he gets a majority, if he can, in another year or two.

This would actually be good. Few Canadians have given democratic reform the careful thought it requires. During the last long decade of democratic paralysis under the Liberals, there was no point.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.

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