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.


John F. Dunbar said...

Unfortunately, that won't make any difference to the fact that the political process in the western world is 100% in the hands of the 1%. It will remain that way until there is a major change of the system. This will not happen by trying to make change from inside a completely dysfunctional system.

HeyItsMe said...

This will be the second senate ballot that I will spoil!

AlbertaRusH said...

Snap thought: Since you've opened up the constitution anyways, why not have the senate represent municipalities? Form a elected/appointed (who cares) super body that sends regional municipal reps to a New Senate; one that represents citizens at the level that matter most: municipalities. Maybe we could evolve a province-less confederation of super municipalities and bank the savings!


Atypical Albertan said...

Thanks for the comments.

I have spoiled all of my previous ballots for senate election. While this election has a bit more legitimacy because Harper has introduced reforms, it is still piecemeal illegitimate reform. I understand that there is another option - to reject the ballot and that may be another way to register protest.

Juan, I generally agree. There is more reform needed in our system and removing the power of capital in politics would be important to that process.

AlbertaRusH, There are lots of ways that we can reform the senate and generally it seems to be focused on bringing some form of balance whether it is balance toward provinces that are underrepresented (as proposed by Preston Manning) or cities (like you propose). These questions/ideas speak to the need for wholesale reform and against the concept of ad hoc reform.