Thursday, October 6, 2011


So as soon as I suggested that Premier Alward's economic approach was stuck in the 1970's, the man shows a determination to prove me wrong. The premier has now identified the business of electing senators is his top priority.  This clearly shows that the premier can update his thinking, because Senate reform is an issue from the early 1990s.  For some, this would be nostalgia; for the Alward Conservatives, this is actually progress.
Some commentators have suggested that the Premier's new agenda means that Liberals need to scurry over to this new topic and be prepared to debate this agenda. Some Liberals have joined in.  But I'm here to tell you, as Prince said, there's something else.

First of all, before New Brunswick joins in full-throated support of Stephen Harper's old Reform agenda for federalism, let's remember WHY conservatives love Senate Reform.

Forget the old canard about regional representation.  In different times, when politicians worked more across the aisles in Ottawa, having twenty-four senators instead of ten MP's may have mattered. Today, in the partisan circus in Ottawa, federal politicians are a function of their party’s central command, supporting and spouting the lines from their leaders. The quality and independent thought of our representative’s matter. The number of seats that can swing and decide who becomes Prime Minister may affect platforms. But anyone who thinks senators would form post-partisan regional blocs to defend the same issues regardless of political stripe is dreaming in technicolour. 

The real reason conservatives want a second elected chamber is because it will render the national government even more ponderous and dysfunctional, which is a good thing if, like Stephen Harper, you want a national government whose entire agenda consists of national defense and locking up young offenders. Watching President Obama's mandate to create a national health care plan for a nation that had millions without health coverage is instructive -- if you want to slow down the creation of national social programs and new shared endeavors, you'll love having two elected chambers squabbling over every step forward. 

It's rational for conservatives to want divided government.  It's crazy for Liberals and progressives. And for New Brunswickers, it is irrational.  New Brunswick benefits from having national standards in social programs. In a decentralized Canada, wealthier provinces can use their advantage to slash taxes and start a race to the bottom where New Brunswick will lose. Having a minimum safety net that every province has to maintain keeps social programs safe, and a weak national government can't do that. Sometimes, putting New Brunswick first also means putting Canada first. 

But, of course, the best way to deal with Premier Alward's sudden passion for constitutional minutiae is to let him have it. In a province where unemployment has never been lower than the day before he took office, where too many kids still struggle to read and too many parents are trapped in poverty, and where our Premier says things are so dire that we simply have to let environmental concerns go, families are not going to reward politicians who want to return to a debating society on Canadian federalism.

In the New Brunswick Legislature, there's a beautiful room upstairs where committees meet. Sharp-eyed observers will notice an old speaker's chair at the back. It's there because that room used to be our Provincial Senate, which was a second chamber. While New Brunswick is a bilingual province of diverse regions, I can think of no time when any serious person has suggested that the common good in jobs, schools or public safety would be immediately improved if we restored the New Brunswick Senate. We haven't missed it, and neither would Canada. To borrow a tongue-in-cheek quote from John Crosbie, a Triple E Senate isn't as good an idea as a Triple A Senate.... arthritic, alcoholic and abolished. 

Come on, Liberals.  We have a solid history and the right ideas for the future on jobs, education, and social progress. Falling in the polls, David Alward has every reason to distract New Brunswickers from these issues. Let's just make sure he doesn't distract us.

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