Sunday, April 15, 2012
Why I am eating my ballot.
With one week to go in the Alberta general election campaign, I’m wondering what you perceive the biggest issues to be. Perhaps it is F-35 fighter jets, maybe it is the abolition of the gun registry, the omnibus crime bill, perhaps it is public service cuts related to food safety inspectors or the CBC.
…So, I’m being told that those are not issues in the Alberta election… uh, huh… right, apparently, these are federal issues and not provincial issues… okay.
Well this makes sense, since we are contesting a provincial election, we should be discussing provincial issues like education, healthcare, energy and agriculture.
…what’s that… okay, but… No you just said this was a provincial election… WTF?... So apparently, I am now being told that there is a federal contest in this election.
At the same time there is a provincial general election (and a hotly contested one, at that) we are also selecting nominees-in-waiting forthe federal senate. Alberta is the only province in the country that partakes in this practice, and since confederation only three elected senators have ever been appointed to the senate. Otherwise, appointments are made by the Prime Minister without any democratic participation.
It is a little ridiculous that we are holding this federal contest in the middle of a provincial campaign. There has been absolutely no attention paid to the contest, the candidates or the issues. The purpose of a democratic campaign, in my mind, is that every 4 years (or so) we engage in a public conversation around issues of importance and then citizens decide on who they think will best represent those views. If there is no public discussion of the issues, then the outcome of the process fails to have legitimacy.
Another peculiarity of this exercise that questions the legitimacy of the practice is that the people who are being elected next week, could be left in waiting for up to 6 years or longer. Who is to say, that the candidates elected by Albertans in 2012 will still be supported in 2018 or for that matter decades later as they still sit in the chamber. Perhaps the opinion of the candidate on certain issues will have changed; perhaps the opinion of Albertans will have changed. In a legitimate democratic campaign, the candidates need to discuss publicly the relevant issues of the day that they will be deciding on - that is not what is happening in this process. This delay between when an election is made and when an appointment is made brings further questions to the legitimacy of the election.
Now, I understand why we are doing this. There is a genuine interest in reforming the senate and most Albertans have seemingly supported the concept of a triple-E senate as advanced by the Reform party in the 1990s. But the little exercise we are engaged in today is haphazard and only achieves a miniscule element of piecemeal reformation. All it does is add some little bit of credibility to a system that is completely broken without committing to the full set of reforms that are necessary.
At the end of the day, we should talk about real senate reform instead of piecemeal ad hoc revisions and perhaps we should even talk about abolishing the senate. The Senate is Canada’s version of the British House of Lords. The House of Lords was the first version of parliament in the English monarchy. In the 11th century, this house included religious leaders and key advisors to the king, appointed by the king. It wasn’t until the 14th century that cities and boroughs demanded representation that the house of commons (representing commoners) was created. For centuries the house of lords included those who held particular church positions, those appointed by the king and those who inherited their seat from their parents. In fact, up until 1999 a chunk of seats in the house of lords were still being passed down within aristocratic families. (This page outlines how seats are given out in Britain today). The house of lords maintained power over the house of commons for many centuries and the struggle of prominence is an important piece of British history. Ultimately, the house of lords is about maintaining power in the hands of the wealthy and elite and those who have become accustomed to holding power. It serves well to maintain the class lines that are so prominent in Britain throughout history and even into today.
In today’s Canada, we have no need for a house of lords or a senate – elected or not. That is why I plan to spoil my senate ballot on April 23rd and I hope you will too.