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Friday, July 16, 2010

As the Senator Turns

Elect this:

Richard Neufeld stunned colleagues in the chamber of sober second thought Wednesday by announcing he's had, well, second thoughts about the prime minister's cherished dream of creating an elected Senate.

Neufeld said he did support Senate elections when Harper chose him to sit in the upper chamber 18 months ago, although he admitted he'd not given the matter much thought.

But since seeing the Senate in action, he's changed his mind.

"Before I came here, I only thought about it when it was brought up in newspaper articles, or someone was ranting and raving about the Senate when they talked about elections. But I thought we should have an elected Senate," Neufeld said.

Indeed, Neufeld has become a big booster of the current unelected Senate.

"It is time to quit kicking the Senate. It is time to start talking about the good things we do," he told fellow senators.


Now try explaining our Senate to some American visitors, assuming you've run out of weather related small-talk. Not easy. It is neither fish nor fowl. It is legislative body in a liberal democracy that isn't elected. It is suppose to be sort of like Britain's House of Lords, but landed aristocracy never took off in North America, so it became a resting home for - mostly - superannuated partisan hacks. Case in point, Richard Neufeld. One has to wonder about someone whose thinking on parliamentary reform, a body he intended on joining, extended no future than glancing through some op-ed pieces in the local Gazette. Most people pay closer attention to the sports scores. So deep political thinking clearly isn't a job requirement for becoming a Senator.

The Senate is really a constitutional appendix, an organ that was once, perhaps, necessary in our political evolution that has since become, well, an appendix. Note the actual qualifications to become a Canadian Senator:

A senator must possess land worth at least $4,000 in the province for which he or she is appointed. Moreover, a senator must own real and personal property worth at least $4,000 (adjusted for inflation this number could be estimated between $175,000 and $200,000 in current dollars), above his or her debts and liabilities.

Small change in modern terms, but in Victorian Canada it excluded all but the upper middle class and elite from entering the Red Chamber. Sir John A, George Brown et al were not keen on democracy. They'd read their classical history - they were both formidable autodidacts - and basically agreed with James Madison's warning in the Federalist Papers:

Democracy is the most vile form of government... democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention: have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property: and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Like I've said before, neither the founding fathers of America or Canada could get elected today. They were too honest. To modern ears democracy has a warm and fuzzy sound. Like mom and maple syrup. That's because democracy has come to be synonymous with freedom. It isn't. Ask the victims of the Athenian Assembly or the Weimar Republic. To Georgian and Victorian Britishers - which is what Macdonald and Madison basically were - democracy meant unrestricted majority rule. 

They understood that this was a threat to freedom, and devised a system of checks and balances accordingly. Being suspicious of American style "states rights," Macdonald pushed for having an appointed Senate, housing men of property and standing. It all sounds very elitist, but look at it from their perspective. The typical Canadian of 1867 had about three or four years of formal education, many living only a wee-bit above bare subsistence. What do poor and uneducated people do when they're given the vote? Usually they vote themselves the wealth. How does that turn out? When it turns well you get a right-wing authoritarian coup, and have someone like Salazar, Franco or Mussolini calling the shots for a few decades. When it turns out badly, you get modern Africa. 

Thus Macdonald was pretty keen on property qualifications for voting. Since a fair chunk of the tax burden fell on property owners, this was a natural disincentive for government to grow too big. When the people who vote are the people who pay most of the taxes, they don't have much of an incentive to steal from themselves. This is why it is very worrisome that nearly half of modern Americans don't pay income tax, they have all the incentive in the world to - democratically - steal from their richer countrymen. 

I'm not suggesting turning the Senate once again into a House of the Rich. The Victorian rich were, mostly, steeped in classical history and economics. The modern rich are a sorry bunch. Bill Gates and Warren Buffett apologizing profusely for having made so much money. It's enough to make Cornelius Vanderbilt turn in his grave. A starting point for reforming our Senate would be to look to Australia, where they have had an elected upper body since the 1930s.

Posted by Richard Anderson on July 16, 2010 | Permalink


Anyone who has ever tried to remove a pig from the trough will not be surprised. After all the fellow runs the risk of not getting elected and thus being able to continue feeding from the public trough.

An elected Senate is the only thing I find acceptable, provided that the representation is not slanted to favour any one province. Publius is correct that we can no longer link class with wealth in Canada. Some do have a lot of wealth but no class.

Posted by: Alain | 2010-07-16 3:47:49 PM

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