State of the Nation, Summer 2009
Wednesday, 01 July 2009

Why did Parliament approve the auto bailout?

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If ever proof were needed that Canada should have an independent, provincially-elected Senate, it is Ottawa’s $10 billion General Motors/Chrysler bailout.

Consider: The bailout package, tied to a larger American initiative, is so huge that, if it were tacked on to the price of each new vehicle sold in Canada this year, it would add $14,500. (This includes a $3 billion top-up by Ontario taxpayers.)

That won’t happen, of course. The $10 billion will be added, rather, as dead weight to the tax load of all Canadians for generations to come.

Prime Minister Harper has said that this was the necessary price of keeping Ontario’s share of the North American car assembly industry.

But one question ought surely to have been asked and answered first, and wasn’t. Would the overall Canadian economy have been further ahead simply letting GM and Chrysler retreat to the U.S., leaving expansion room for Ford and non-union Canadian plants (Toyota and Honda), and opening our domestic market to foreign manufacturers?

True, if GM and Chrysler go down, there could be, temporarily, up to 85,000 lost jobs in southern Ontario. However, by comparison, there have already been 140,000 jobs lost in the resource industries of Alberta and B.C. – in a work force only two-thirds the size of Ontario’s – and there have been no multi-billion-dollar federal bailouts. In the West, jobs adjust to demand; why not in Ontario?
 
It’s interesting that all four candidates for the provincial Conservative leadership in Ontario say the bailout was a waste. So have almost all economists who have written about it in the national press.

Yet not one national party leader has spoken against it – certainly not Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff. It’s worth asking why.

There are in southern Ontario at least six Commons seats representing auto-assembly constituencies. In a Parliament where a difference of one or two seats can decide which party forms the government, six or more seats – especially in battleground Ontario – is a wealth too large to be ignored.

Typical is Oshawa, bastion of General Motors. It has been held by Conservative Colin Carrie since 2004 by less than 3,000 votes. Under Chretien, Oshawa was Liberal. Today the second party is the NDP. Carrie has fought hard for federal automobile assistance all along.

If the feeling spreads in Oshawa that Harper, coming from Alberta, won’t lift a finger to help General Motors, how long will it take NDP candidate Mike Shields, or Liberal candidate Dean Godfrey, to move 1,500 votes away from Colin Carrie? The same goes for Brampton and Windsor (Chrysler), and Ingersoll (GM).

Hence the $10-billion federal bailout. All national parties are for it, none is against.

Just suppose, however, that such decisions had to satisfy an independent Senate chosen through provincial parties in provincial elections. Would senators from other provinces meekly endorse a special $10-billion freebie to two badly-run corporations? Probably not. Ontario fills less than one-quarter of the Senate’s 105 seats, and Brampton, Windsor and Oshawa don’t fill any – Senate seats are at large for the province. As for the other provinces, their only automotive interest – even Quebec’s – is to keep prices as low as possible.

In short, a properly accountable Senate – accountable, that is, to provincial electorates rather than national party leaders – would ask some hard questions and drive harder bargains.

A radical new idea is infiltrating the Senate

furey.jpgOne of the enduring contradictions of the Canadian Senate has been that it is (so we are ever told) partisan like the House of Commons (Liberals versus Conservatives – and thus in some vague sense accountable), yet at the same time it is supposed to bring cool, dispassionate nonpartisan judgement to bear on legislation coming up from the lower House.

Senators will concede privately that the institution has always been more partisan than they like to admit, especially since the arrival of a Conservative minority government in 2006. With its huge Liberal majority, the Senate has become as devious and manipulative as the House of Commons. Senators like Alberta’s Grant Mitchell, while mouthing the standard Senate platitudes about nonpartisanship, are almost viciously partisan.

There are signs this is upsetting senators on both sides – to the point they are considering, and may even be plotting, a rebellion.

On May 28th a story appeared in the Montreal French-language newspaper Le Devoir, written by Parliament Hill reporter Helene Buzzetti. She said that “about ten or so” senators from each party are seriously discussing quitting the national parties which put them there, so that they may more faithfully serve the province or region whose interests, according to the Canadian Constitution, they are supposed to represent.

Buzzetti explains this would mean quitting the weekly meetings with their national leaders and party allies in the Commons. Instead they would caucus with other senators from their region regardless of party.

Le Devoir did not name many names, and Buzzetti explained to us by telephone that she can’t. She said she suspected something when she read the minutes of the opening meeting, on February 24th, of the Senate Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament.

In that meeting, Conservative Quebec Senator Pierre Nolan said, “For months, if not years, a number of us, unofficially and often while discussing the matter in twos and threes, have asked ourselves about the way the Senate does things, its procedures, and its relationship with the other place [the House of Commons].

“We are certainly aware that a number of organized politicians want to change the very nature of our institution, and some of us have concluded that some changes could perhaps be made. As we wait for these more substantial changes to appear on the horizon, it is perhaps appropriate for us to look at what we can do internally to improve our institution and make it more effective.”

Intrigued by a vague allusion to a subcommittee on Senate reform, Buzzetti began asking around. One anonymous senator said, ““It is in every conversation…every time one talks about reform, participation in the caucus is brought up.  Senators are asking themselves if they should leave their party.”

oliver.jpgA subcommittee has been or will be struck under Senators George Furey (Liberal, Newfoundland) and Donald Oliver (Conservative, Nova Scotia, and chair of the Rules Committee). According to Buzzetti’s account, the main question it will consider (perhaps in camera) is whether the role played by national leaders in the Upper House is appropriate in a Senate that is supposed to be independent. As things have always stood, both Senate house leaders are appointed by and accountable to the national party leaders in the Commons, and the speaker is named by the Prime Minister.

At the Citizens Centre, we think this is very good news. Though the senators involved do not necessarily favour election, the fact that they are seriously considering breaking national party ties is far more important. Once independent of national parties, and speaking for their home regions – which is, after all, the main reason the Senate was created – the first question that will arise is who gave them a mandate to do so. Provincial systems of election will follow.

In the meantime, kudos to Helene Buzzetti, who may have spotted the biggest story of the 40th Canadian Parliament.

Pressure from within

bert-brown.jpgBert Brown, Canada’s only elected senator, sent a letter to Senate Rules Committee chairman Donald Oliver, with a copy to the Prime Minister.

Sen. Brown is one of 15 members on the Senate’s Rules, Procedures and Rights of Parliament Committee.

In his letter he itemized six ways in which the Senate could improve the productivity and trim the expenses of an institution that costs taxpayers $90 million a year.

They ranged from ending the Senate’s daily one-hour questionperiod, to enforcing established limits on speaking in debates that are routinely waived. Question period, said Sen. Brown, is a waste of time. Ministers are not present to answer what is asked (answers are delivered by Government Senate Leader Marjorie LeBreton), there is no outside audience, and the daily exercise “has no purpose other than to allow members to hurl insults from both sides of the Senate chamber.

More significantly, Brown also proposes an end to federal party caucusing by senators. Though elected as a provincial Progressive Conservative in 2004, Brown was summoned to the Senate as a federal Conservative in 2007.

He wrote to Sen. Oliver, “[We should] do away with the current caucus system that is based on Liberal, Conservative and a few Independents sitting in separate caucuses. We propose that future Senates would  caucus as membersrepresenting their provinces. This would entirely do away with criticizing either the governing party or the opposition parties in the [Commons].

“Provincial caucuses would free Senators from federal party discipline and allow them to represent thewishes of their provinces. After all,the Constitution states Senators are torepresent their provinces.”

Sen. Oliver has indicated the Senate reform subcommittee might hold its initial meeting before Parliament
adjourned for the summer.

Our new Senate-election web site

website.jpgStrange to say, no large national organization now exists to promote an elected Senate. Many policy groups support the idea, but pay little attention to it.

Similarly, no Web site exists to promote Senate elections. Many mention it, and some provide good information about it. But none specializes in it.

Web sites are to the 21st century what magazines and periodicals were to the 20th. They enable people to organize, educate and activate on a large scale.

We at the Citizens Centre, with help from other interested individuals, have launched a new Web site, Canadians for an Elected Senate. The address is www.ElectOurSenate.ca.

The plan is to unite everyone who agrees with a democratic Senate – academics, politicians and citizens in general, from all regions and all parties, left and right – to push the idea forward by publicly endorsing a simple resolution: that every province start holding Senate elections.

With effective organization, we should be able to start Senate elections in every province by the year 2017 – eight years from now.

That’s the year Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday. What a magnificent present to the country that would be.

Positive developments

ignatieff.jpgThis past winter, Citizens Centre chairman Link Byfield and his fellow Alberta senator-elect Betty Unger travelled to Winnipeg and Ottawa to consult with politicians about how to advance the cause.

In Winnipeg they urged a special committee of the Manitoba Legislature to move ahead with provincial Senate elections.

The committee is not considering whether to elect senators, but how. There was a long roster of presenters in Winnipeg, most of them offering positive proposals for election.

Manitoba’s NDP government is said to be favorably inclined toward Senate elections, despite its earlier statement that it would prefer to see the Senate abolished. Abolishing the Senate is close to impossible under the Constitution, and the Manitoba government now appears to be leaning to reform. The special committee is expected to report back to the Legislature in the fall.

In March, Byfield and Unger organized a dinner for a dozen key pro-election senators, MPs and former MPs. There was general agreement that a nonpartisan national initiative is required, and that it should be focused on the provinces.

The outcome of that discussion is the “Elect Our Senate” website described on page 3.

At the Citizens Centre, we see the coming fall as an excellent time to push forward in the following ways:

1. Ask Michael Ignatieff if he supports the elected Senate resolution.
2. Interview senators, starting with Furey and Oliver, whether they want independence from the national parties in the Lower House.
3. Encourage legislators in Manitoba and Saskatchewan to move ahead with provincial Senate-election legislation.
4. Canvas across Canada for public endorsement of the “Elect Our Senate” web site resolution.

It’s our sense at the Citizens Centre that the time is ripe for an elected, independent Senate. The challenge is less to convince Canadians it’s a good idea – most people have long agreed with it. The real challenge is to make it a political priority.

We urge you to support these activities, by endorsing the Elect Our Senate web site resolution yourself – see the enclosed form – and by renewing your Citizens Centre membership if the covering letter indicates it is due.

When things move in the right direction like this, it’s always good to give them a push.