Originally posted from August 29, 2008
It’s days like today that remind me why I’ve never been a foam-at-the-mouth proponent for Senate reform.
Yes, the Canadian Senate is a historical aberration of Canadian politics, a hold-over to olden-times when the similarities to the British House of Lords meant something. Yes, it’s unelected, and its pattern of regional representation is almost sixty years out of date, two strong strikes against this democratic institution, but occasionally it acts as it was intended to: as a chamber of sober second thought. And as second thoughts go, they don’t come more sober than this.
As I suspected might happen, the Opposition has decided to reign in the Rhino government through their combined overwhelming majority in the Senate. And Moore and Dion must have planned, coordinated, and got out the whip, because the CBC is reporting that certain Liberal and Conservative senators are in attendance that haven’t sat in their seats for years.
But most intriguing was what they did with Brian Salmi’s legislation. They didn’t vote to defeat any of Salmi’s bills. No. Instead, they voted to study them.
Thus, I suspect, keeping the ball in the Senate’s court, where it’s safer.
As far as I can tell, that’s constitutional. Harper harangued the Liberals for taking it slow on his Senate Reform legislation, but other than taking things to the court of public opinion, there was little he could do to make the Liberal senators move faster. (And, incidentally, I’m betting that some Conservatives are breathing a sigh of relief that Harper’s bill died on the order paper last month).
If the Senate voted to defeat the Omnibus bills, they might not have been able to stop them. Senators can’t defeat the money bills passed by the House.
So, now the chessboard has been set. Salmi knows that any Rhino piece of legislation that Senators deem silly isn’t going to pass. But Salmi is still the Prime Minister. He has the power to fill vacancies in the Senate. He also has the power to act with the powers of the Prime Minister’s Office on issues deemed regulatory in nature. So, he can legitimately sell the Senate Speaker’s Chair on eBay (current bid is at $20,000). There are plenty of other opportunities for strange shenanigans.
Which brings me to the American president, who Calgary Grit reports called our new prime minister earlier this morning. According to the news, the conversation was cordial (“we had a few laughs,” says President Bush), and our prime minister gave the American president no excuse to invade. But if one wonders what our American friends might be thinking, I think the first signs came with this afternoon’s reference of our softwood lumber deal to the World Trade Organization (again!).
I doubt the Americans did this just to make this man strip naked, paint himself blue and start quoting Braveheart (and, Greg, those photos? Too much information!). After all, the dispute was supposedly solved (twice!) by Harper, and the current agreement is less than two months old.
But put yourself in America’s position: your nearest neighbour and biggest trading partner has just elected an unknown quantity to the prime minister’s chair, a comedian. How do you deal with a government of court jesters? How can you reasonably do business with a country that might vote to change the rules of engagement for a few laughs?
At the same time, this is your biggest trading partner, and if something happens to disrupt your trading partner ability to trade, you take a hit as well. And with perception being nine-tenths of reality, you really, really don’t want to contribute to the sense that something is wrong by metaphorically grabbing your biggest trading partner by the shoulders, shaking him about, and shouting “what the heck is wrong with you?!!?”
So, how do you check to ensure that the bureaucratic apparatus of your neighbour is functioning? Possibly, you discretely poke it with a stick.
It takes days, if not weeks, for a challenge to the World Trade Organization to proceed. Very little happens in the interim (especially if you are doing as the Americans are doing and buying Canadian dollars to keep our currency stable), so you can sit and see how the bureaucratic apparatus responds. Does it respond? Does the Prime Minister’s Office keep his hands off? Are the rules of engagement still in place, and can you still do business?
I think the Bush Administration must have been heartened, at least, that the Deputy Minister of Trade promptly responded by calling the referral ‘spurious’ and saying that ‘the Canadian position would be defended vigorously,’ just as he said it when Prime Minister Harper’s government responded to the last American challenge to the last challenge to the WTO (which we won, thankyouverymuch). And he didn’t hesitate much, either, when asked if he had Prime Minister Salmi’s support (‘absolutely!’).
That might be a bit of a fib, but given how the Rhino government sat quietly while the Opposition passed two boring business pieces of legislation yesterday, silence may equal support.
But we need to take this warning seriously. It is a warning. If the Americans are wondering if its safe to do business with us, our economy is treading upon some very shaky ground. We need some signal within the next week or so that somebody (Salmi or somebody else) is in charge in this country — really in charge! — and that the business of business can still proceed.