"True, the old Peter Van Loan and the new Peter Van Loan seem to be one and the same person ... but the new version is saying such different things about changing the size of the House of Commons that it's like a magician's trick," national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson wrote in Wednesday's column, pointing out how completely the Conservatives have reversed course on whether Ontario should get more seats.
Mr. Simpson took reader questions about Commons seats, democratic reform and his latest column. An edited excerpt follows, or click below to read the discussion as it took place.
(Reading this on a mobile device? Click here for a mobile-friendly version of the live chat.)
Moderator: A reader wrote in the comments on your column: "We pay so much for the average MP, with so little role to play in government." Would it be better to be able to reduce representation for provinces that have shrunk, proportionately?
Jeffrey Simpson: The argument was advanced some years ago -- I think it was during Mulroney's time in office -- that since Saskatchewan's population had shrunk, that it should lose a seat. My memory is a bit foggy here -- and the trouble with on-line is that you have no time to check -- but I think the province protested, the Conservative MPs from the province protested, and the province did not lose a seat. The Maritimes, of course, are guaranteed their seats by virtue of not being allowed to fall below their number of senators. So all that can be done is hold provinces steady with stable or declining populations -- Newfoundland lost 500,000 people approximately during the last decade -- while adding seats for fast-growing provinces.
Brian F.: If enacted, could Mr. Harper's various democratic reforms (Senate, rep by pop, etc.) help rehabilitate the image of his previous governments, which developed a reputation for a heavy-handed approach to parliamentary democracy?
Jeffrey Simpson: It is unlikely that the reputation of which you speak will be much changed, let alone diminished -- by these changes. The election of senators, if it ever happens, will be a long, slow business, and in the meantime, Mr. Harper will appoint senators mostly or entirely faithful to the Conservative Party. Where the Senate with a Liberal majority was occasionally a minor nuisance for the prime minister, a Conservative-dominated Senate will be no obstacle at all. As for the new seats, these will come after the next election, and since most of them will be in provinces where the Conservatives are already more than competitive, I don't see how they would present other than an opportunity for the prime minister and his party to grow stronger, not weaker.
Leanne: Is there any constitutional reason why senators shouldn't be elected, even if only in some provinces?
Jeffrey Simpson: I stand to be corrected by constitutional scholars, but the method of how people get to the Senate is not a constitutional issue; the distribution of seats is, however. An elected Senate, by whatever means, would change in an important way the nature of our parliamentary democracy, since with election comes legitimacy and the capacity to use the power that senators seldom exercise because they are appointed. I have spent quite a lot of time in Australia, where the Senate is elected (by proportional representation), and it is quite powerful, producing periodic battles with the House of Representatives. So anyone who wants an elected Senate and, on balance I favour one, needs to think clearly about its relations with the House of Commons, how to break deadlocks etc. There are cascading consequences of having an elected Senate.
BJB: The election of senators in the states was a slow, state-by-state evolution that eventually resulted in a constitutional amendment that enshrined popular elections for the upper chamber. Is this the process Harper is hoping to set in motion?
Jeffrey Simpson: Your reading of U.S. history is accurate. I do not know if Mr. Harper intends to set loose a process that would lead us to follow the U.S. example. But the U.S. example is misleading in one important respect: the distribution of seats to each state was settled by the Founding Fathers. That each state, regardless of size, would receive the same number of Senate seats was a vital compromise in the U.S. constitution-making process. Here, we do not have anything like equality of seats nor do I believe we will. So were we to move to an elected Senate, without changing the representation, we would be enshrining a body where no consensus existed on the distribution of seats. We would just be taking the status quo, and I do not believe that will ever be accepted by the larger provinces. So the U.S. example is instructive but not necessarily helpful.
Mr. Kim: If our governments aren't going to reopen the constitution on all these issues where change is desired (asymmetrical federalism, rep by pop, elected senators), do we risk having a democracy run by precedent and convention rather than a written, functional constitution?
Jeffrey Simpson: This is not the time or place for a long dissertation on the constitution, a subject on which I have wasted too many years of my life. But there is the written constitution, which is interpreted ultimately by the courts, and there is the unwritten constitution, which is based on precedent. For example, there is nothing in the written constitution about the prime minister and his powers, and yet the occupant of that office is by far the most important political actor.
Latrell: Why not? It's been 20 years, for goodness sake. It's been a while. I think it should be safe to talk about it again. Just because the previous generation failed (I won't say miserably) at achieving some consensus, doesn't mean the present generation shouldn't give it a whirl.
Jeffrey Simpson: Although history does not ever repeat itself, it does offer lessons. I invite you therefore to ask yourself with precision a) what do we want to achieve with constitutional reform, b) how to we limit the debate only to that objective (and now have others crowd into the picture), c) how do we prevent the debate from becoming a bonfire of regional, ethnic and linguistic grievances that have characterized previous efforts, d) what are the means by which we secure agreement in the country, since some provinces now require referendums, and the Charlottetown exercise suggests a precedent has been established whereby any and all constitutional amendements must be put before the people, to mention just a few. I am saying that one enters the minefield of constitutional debate very carefully. Me, I wouldn't go there under all but the most extreme circumstances, and I certainly wouldn't do a Jack Layton and loosely talk about the issue without any idea of what to specifically change, why and how.
Marco: When comparing the Senatorial divisions and their allotted seat numbers to the US Senate regional counterparts with seats allotted by regions in the USA (eg. NE States compared to Maritimes, Mid-West compared to Ontario or Quebec, Deep South compared to Ontario or Quebec, US West compared to Western Cdn. Provinces): the percentages of total Senate seats appear to be roughly the same. Would this be an indicator that there really is no need for any Cdn. Constitutional amendment to re-distribute Senate seats?
Jeffrey Simpson: You didn't raise this, but I will. All this loose talk about Senate reform obscures the fact that powerful provincial premiers will not have it, notably those from Quebec and Ontario. Other premiers, if they thought about it, wouldn't like it either, because senators who were elected could claim to speak for their provinces with the same legitimacy as premiers, as senators do in the U.S. vis-a-vis governors. Not many premiers want that. Maybe the Canadian confederation would have evolved in a very different (ie. more centralized) fashion if senators had been elected from the beginning. Bit history cannot be rewritten.