Senate and Parliamentary Reform: 40 years too late

I remember growing up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, as a transplanted Torontonian in a Grade 11 Social Studies classroom, listening to a whole classroom full of Western discontent. There were good reasons to be discontented in the 1970s and years previous. If wheat was grown in Saskatchewan, why not process the flour in Saskatchewan? Instead, it was shipped by freight train to Toronto and milled there. I know, because I remember the Five Roses flour mill south of Toronto’s Lakeshore Boulevard before I left for the West. Basically, the argument that seemed to capture the Western Canadian imagination as I saw it in my classroom was that industry jobs were moving east, while the west remained a sparsely-populated backwater of natural resources for everyone else. The Crow’s Nest rate for shipping wheat by freight was costly to farmers while being a boondoggle to the Eastern flour mills. The wheat marketing board, which these days acts as giving a fair shake to all Western farmers while keeping away multinationals which would put thousands of farmers out of business, is considered uppopular by farmers who are frustrated by the board’s habit of severely underpricing the wheat, and for not being able allowed to sell their wheat for “whatever the traffic will bear”. The wheat board, once again, was bowing to Eastern industry and forsaking those they were supposed to help.

The argument as I heard it, was that a big part of the problem was that there was a lack of Western representation in Parliament. That meant that any laws passed or bills tabelled were done largely in favour of Eastern interests. In addition, the Senate, whose purpose was to represent all regions of Canada equally and thus act as a foil to Parliament’s favouritism to the East, was packed with Liberal-appointed senators, largely favouring interests in the East, thus institutionalizing the problem. Obviously, westerners had good reason to be miffed. They, however, faced a humbling problem with a lack of population to justify any added seats.

But forty years on, with Conservatives in power (mostly westerners who were repurposed from the Reform Party of Canada in the most influential positions — most of the rest are absolute rookies with no parliamentary experience) they’re ready, willing, and raring to go with the reforms that were merely dreamt of 40 years ago. But the world has changed from underneath them. Westerners who wanted their reforms (which would still not be a bad idea, to a degree) will have to think of a different reason for wanting them. Jobs are moving out of the country these days, and much less so to Ontario and Quebec. Westerners and easterners alike are now confronted with something beyond our power, which is globalization. The reasons for reform that were so convincing 40 years ago can no longer be used as reasons.

Much of the reforms today are motivated by advice givers from the US-Republican party, and many have said that Stephen Harper’s political style is more consistent with the Republican party: cutting government costs, and being tough on crime. The idea of an elected senate might look good on the surface, but these senators can’t represent the interests of voters, since that’s already being done by the lower chamber. The Senate is supposed to have a different role. It is purportedly a sanity check, ensuring that the interests of minority groups, underpopulated regions and so on, were given consideration in bills that were passed in the lower chamber. The main weakness of the senate is that all senators are appointed by the Prime Minister, greatly politicising the appointments, and once done those senators are there for as long as they want to be. Any appointments made for short-term gain mean that you have to live with these appointments for possibly decades.

Electing a senate has its own problems, in that it becomes reduced to merely just another level of bureaucracy to reflect the interests of voters, thus continuing the tyranny of the majority. In that case, the function of “sober second thought” becomes little more than a charade, so why bother at all? We need a body of people to act as thinkers of the consequences of legislation over the long term. This means that the interest of voters and of worrying about the next election cannot be the top priority of the senate. What is the effect of legislation over decades? What is popular in terms of making it to the next election is not necessarily in the best interests of the country over the long term. But what is needed is to find a way to make these appointments less politicized.

Jello Biafra’s predictions made manifest (reported to you entirely in lolcat lingo)

If u recall teh instalment ov “wwjd?”, Jello Biafra discusd bout teh effects an politics ov all dat “toxic crap” which r affecshunately refr 2 as teh tar sandz.

Yesturdai, i read in da globe an mail dat pipeline rupturd on teh top ov hill. Teh crude bitumen flowd down into teh muskeg below.  Nearby aboriginal community wuz gettin sick frum teh stench, especially teh children. They had 2 close teh skool down 4 at least 3 weekz. Teh dai aftr Stefen Harpr got electd, it wuz finally admittd by teh alberta gubment dat 250,000 barrels ov crude tar sandz bitumen had spilld into teh muskeg, killin local animals an plants, an makin peeps sick. Dat didnt taek long 2 proov itself out.


If you recall the installment of “WWJD?”,Jello Biafra discussed about the effects and politics of all that “toxic crap” which are affectionately referred to as the tar sands.

Yesterday, I read in the Toronto Globe and Mail that a pipeline ruptured on the top of a hill. The crude bitumen flowed down into the muskeg below.  A nearby aboriginal community got sick from the stench, especially the children. They had to close the school down for at least three weeks. The day after Stephen Harper got elected, it was finally admitted by the Alberta government that 250,000 barrels of crude tar sands bitumen had spilled into the muskeg, killing local animals and plants, and making people sick. That didn’t take long to prove itself out.

Food for thought during the Canadian Federal Election Campaign

I have been a big fan of Jello Biafra’s spoken word stuff. This time, he does his spoken word thing around some mannequins, and he’s discussing the Alberta Tar Sands, and how dirty the fuel is to refine, and how dependent the United States is on our oil.

To those who haven’t heard him before, he has strong views. But in the typical punk rock/anarchist tradition, you are encouraged not to take his word for it — why not search out the truth for yourself? Get it from the source, or as close to the source as you can. Jello is a Green Party member in the U. S., and is likely to be quite well-read on environmental issues.

One problem, although it is a minor point: While I distrust Stephen Harper as much as anyone, his religion is evangelical, but not fundamentalist as Jello suggested in his piece below. He may try to convert you 🙂 but he probably doesn’t believe that the Earth is 5000 years old or that the Bible is literally true. Nor would they agree with the idea of speaking in tongues. In fact, his church, The Christian and Missionary Alliance, has been a participant in a lot of human relief efforts worldwide. Just the same, who knows? Maybe Harper really does believe that Jesus will make a rainforest grow from the tailings of the refinery, and make the cancerous tumors of the Miskew Cree disappear. Check out this article for more info on the effects of the refinery tailings on the Athabasca River, downstream from the tar sands mine.

So overall, Jello’s speech kind of makes me want to go out and become a card-carrying Green Party member.

This is from an ongoing series on Jello’s blog, called “What would Jello do?“. You should check out the others.

Meanwhile, there is an election on May 2nd, and while cynics say that voting doesn’t change things much, the only thing worse than voting is not voting. Clicking on the graphic below the video leads you to Elections Canada, where you can get to know a few things about your local candidates. If you are a Canadian citizen of legal age, be sure you are registered to vote.