Messing with the Constitution isn’t reform, it’s vandalism

What’s left of our Parliament will probably recess for the summer before passing bills setting fixed election dates for the House of Commons and eight-year terms for senators. But don’t pass out on me yet. Messing up our Constitution remains a lousy idea. It might seem silly as well as boring to fuss over the details of Bills C-16 and S-4 when the House just passed a $227-billion budget in its sleep. MPs’ control of the public purse is the cornerstone of parliamentary self-government, yet the opposition parties forgot to vote against a budget a year after the Tories forgot they even were the opposition and deliberately didn’t. But our system is a coherent, if elaborate, structure, so watching Conservatives who are meant to revere tradition digging away at any part of its foundations instead is disquieting.

Let’s not start with “fixed” election dates. A law requiring an election every four years wouldn’t work. What’s to stop a prime minister, with a majority or without, manoeuvring to lose a major Commons vote at a convenient moment, or fiddling the legislative calendar to bring up key legislation just before the four-year mark? D’oh. Then we’re told citizens would recognize and punish such deviousness although they’re currently too dim to notice an early election call at all.

This newspaper editorialized that, with fixed election dates, “Potential candidates, especially women, of whom there are not enough in federal politics, will be able to plan their lives to include a run for office.” Parliament ends; women and minorities hardest hit! But punch “9:00 Ashley hockey. 11:00 Billy violin. 13:00 Get elected” into your PDA and avoid collapsing from career/family stress. Ditto the Citizen’s notion that “fixed election dates could be part of a larger project to revitalize interest in voting.” As we’re typing “Oct. 19, 2009: Vote” we’ll be reminded to add “Oct. 9, 2009: Take interest in voting.” Or not, since the U.S. has truly fixed election dates but low turnouts.

It gets worse. Under what’s left of our real Constitution, the prime minister is the leader who enjoys the confidence of the House. But we need periodic elections to make sure MPs enjoy public confidence so we already have fixed election dates: every five years unless something intervenes. A change to four may not cause milk and honey to gush forth.

As for “fixing” them so nothing can intervene, suppose a prime minister tells a governor general an issue has arisen so important that, though he controls the House, it would be improper to push legislation through on it without ensuring the House reflects prevailing opinion. If, say, a free-trade agreement emerges from negotiations not synchronized with our election cycle. Or Finance boffins finish drafting major tax changes. Or a war starts.

The Americans handle such problems totally differently. But our constitutional system, “similar in Principle to the United Kingdom,” is already finely tuned to deal with them. Hammering a square republican peg of fixed election dates into the round parliamentary hole of dissolving the House at suitable moments isn’t reform, it’s ignorant vandalism. Which is why Bill C-16 actually says: “Nothing in this section affects the powers of the Governor General, including the power to dissolve Parliament at the Governor General’s discretion.” Promising fixed dates is, um, disingenuous.

Now take the proposal to limit senators to eight-year terms … please. Its sugary coating of nonsense is that it could be enacted at all. Constitutional changes affecting provincial interests require an amending process that, deliberately or not, is unworkable. And a more effective Senate with current seat distribution would harm under-represented provinces such as B.C., while changing that distribution would harm overrepresented ones such as P.E.I. and, oh, what’s that one where they speak French that’s occasionally a constitutional issue?

Its bitter core is the Senate’s function as a chamber of sober second thought that can delay rash initiatives and improve technically faulty legislation but not obstruct the House. If various reforms give it democratic legitimacy, how shall we break a Senate-Commons deadlock? With fixed election dates we couldn’t even dissolve the House to give a new one the moral force of a fresh mandate. And you can’t dissolve the Senate, period.

The National Post editorially praised eight-year terms primarily as “a signal that more fundamental reforms may be in store.” If you want to send a signal use semaphore. Violating constitutional principles to show you care is a recipe for disaster. Like Tony Blair reforming the House of Lords right into a cash-for-peerage scandal. Or compromising Canadian senators’ independence by urging them, before voting, to consider what lobbying or patronage job they might need in eight years.

Shredding the Constitution is boring. But it’s still vandalism.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]

ColumnsJohn Robson