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The Senate is Misunderstood

The Senate is the appendix of Confederation: a largely inert organ, like the appendix, whose original purpose is lost to time, but which on occasion can grow inflamed — with pus, or its own self-importance, as the case may be — at which point it becomes dangerous.

Just how dangerous we saw most recently in the case of Bill C-14, the assisted suicide bill, a matter many senators plainly felt was too important to be decided by the people we elect for the purpose. But this was hardly the first such episode: free trade, the GST, abortion, climate change, on all of these and more the Senate has declared itself entitled to substitute its own judgment for that of mere MPs, or threatened to…excerpt from the article by Andrew Coyne, National Post.

The Senate is an independent body, appointed rather than elected, for a fundamentally, sound reason; democracy cannot be trusted.

Our ancestors understood this having lived through Napoleon’s wars. They understood that a radical leader might ride a wave of populist sentiment and take power for himself, rather than the country. In our FPTP voting system, this might give a dictator a 5 year term in which he could do considerable harm.  Our ancestors understood the necessity for a balance of power, in a bicameral legislature designed to provide some restraint.

Today, we trust democracy. We imagine that anything that would be called ‘democratic’ must be ‘elected.’ We are quite wrong, of course, and it ‘rubs us the wrong way’ to see an appointed body run herd on an elected body but that was a wise, deliberate design.

We have been assimilated by American culture, particularly since the end of WWII, and we accept ideas, consciously and unconsciously, quite foreign to our system of government. We imagine that ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ is an admirable thing as we forget that a motley band of revolutionaries conceived this egalitarian ‘principle.’

Our system of government, less appreciated today than ever, is superior, more stable, and capable of far greater things than the American system. Andrew Coyne, like others who may agree with him, is simply wrong.

Canada is a ‘representative Parliamentary Democracy,’ which, curiously, isn’t a democracy.  We don’t elect directly our Prime Minister.  The House of Commons does that, following the results of a general election.  We elect local constituency members of the House.  This isn’t an accident but the result of deliberate design called First Past the Post voting (FPTP).  It allows for a minority of the popular vote to elect a majority of members of the House.  This may be a ‘somewhat’ democratic process in which one person has one vote but the seats in the House are not proportionally distributed.  That is another condition that irritates people, like me, who would like to see the seats in the House distributed according to the popular vote results.

Since 1982, there is provision for conducting a referendum under narrow and specific circumstances but it isn’t certain that the outcome of a referendum, however it may be conducted, would be legally binding on the PM or the government anyway.

We do not live in a genuine democracy and, like it or not, that fact isn’t likely to change. People need to understand that our system of government was devised by cynical men who understood power and it’s potential to corrupt, far more intensely than we do, and we would be wise to grasp the idea before proposing to change it.

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Professional. Retired. Canadian.

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