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Senate Shuffle

2 Jun

When it comes to the Senate of Canada, no news is indeed good news.

If the Upper House is in the headlines, or leading broadcast newscasts, or the subject of spirited online discussions, chances are good that it is for reasons that don’t reflect well on the institution.

After Prime Minister Stephen Harper swore in his new cabinet last month at Rideau Hall, he spent a few minutes speaking to the media about the ministers he had just appointed.

His office waited until after Harper was done speaking, and safely out of earshot of reporters’ questions, before announcing via press release that the Prime Minister was also appointing three Conservatives to the Senate, all of them unsuccessful candidates in the election that had taken place only two weeks earlier.

In fact, two of the three new senators – Larry Smith and Fabian Manning – had only recently resigned from the Upper Chamber in order to run their failed campaigns for House of Commons seats.

Nice consolation prizes. And nice work if you can get it: The base salary for a Canadian senator is $132,000 a year until the age of 75. Smith, of course, famously referred to that as a “dramatic, catastrophic pay cut” from his previous salary as president of the Montreal Alouettes when he was appointed to the Senate for the first time in December. But Senate appointments have been plum rewards for party loyalists since the time of Confederation.

If the Conservatives thought they could bury the news by announcing it on the same day as the cabinet shuffle, they were mistaken. The Senate appointments knocked the cabinet news off the front pages.

Critics said the appointments smacked of cynicism and contempt for democracy from a Prime Minister who just won his first majority government.

Jack Layton, the new Official Opposition leader, called the move a “slap in the face” to voters.

“Canadians should be outraged that three individuals who were just defeated by the Canadian people in an election have now been appointed to the Senate,” he said.

The public advocacy group Democracy Watch went even further. It called for a police investigation into the appointments, arguing that if the new senators were promised reappointments if they lost their elections, that would have violated a law against inducing Parliamentarians to resign in exchange for reward.

In response, the new-old senators said their surprising reappointments also came as surprises to them.

The government’s explanation for the appointments seemed paradoxical to some. Marjory Lebreton, the government’s leader in the Senate, said the new appointees were necessary to bring the Conservative numbers back up to a solid majority in the Upper House – a majority that can now help pass reforms to the Senate to make it more democratic.

“They’ve all served in caucus, they all support Senate reform and they’ll make a great contribution to the Senate,” Lebreton told CTV News.

Missing from the explanation was a justification for why these particular appointees – and not others – were necessary to ensure such a majority.

But with majorities in both Houses of Parliament, will the government now move quickly to enact Senate reform?

Harper has always advocated some sort of reform, but he will not even entertain the idea of re-opening constitutional talks with the provinces in order to fundamentally change the way the Senate operates – to make it “equal, elected and effective,” in the language of the old Reform Party, in which Harper cut his political teeth.

Instead, his party will soon re-introduce legislation that it couldn’t pass when it had a minority government – legislation that will enable provinces to hold elections for senators that the Prime Minister will be expected to appoint, and that will impose term limits on the winning candidates. Opposition parties blocked such initiatives in the past, arguing they would create a half-baked Senate with uneven regional representation, a fuzzy democratic mandate, and an uncertain legislative role.

Provincial governments are also mostly opposed to this plan (maybe because elected senators could challenge their own monopoly as democratically-elected provincial representatives). Quebec’s government is threatening to take the matter to court if the federal government attempts unilateral reform. Other provincial leaders, including Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, are echoing the federal NDP’s call for the Senate to be abolished entirely.

To effectively enact its plan, the federal government will need the provinces’ co-operation.

If the Prime Minister really is trying to move toward a more democratic Senate, his recent actions on that file may have damaged the credibility of his cause.


The Age of Cultural Time Travel

2 Jun

I was watching “Lost” a few weeks back, when the thought hit me: Not only is this TV show about time travel, but so is a big chunk of our popular culture.

If you’re a regular viewer of the popular sci-fi program, you’ll know that time travel was one of the central features of the past season of “Lost”.

Over the course of several episodes, some of the show’s main characters became unstuck in time on the mysterious South Pacific island that serves as the main setting for the action unfolding over the course of the series.

A character might be walking through the jungle or along the beach in the present day, when suddenly – one time-distorting flash of light later – that same character would be in the same location, but it would be the early 1950s. Another flash and it would be the ‘80s. Then back to the present. Then back to another point in the future or past.

Sometimes they’d jump a few days forward or backward. Other times it would be many years. Either way, they would encounter other characters who were not unstuck in time, for whom life was unfolding in a linear fashion. When this happened, our time-travelling heroes would often have a tough time explaining who they were and what they were doing here.

The time travel plot created extraordinary scenarios, such as characters encountering younger versions of themselves, or trying (and failing) to change past events. In one time-boggling scene, a mother mistakenly shoots her time-travelling adult son, at the same time as she is pregnant with him.

“Lost” isn’t the only time-travel tale skipping through current popular culture.

The new “Star Trek” movie was made by the same team that created “Lost”, so maybe it’s no coincidence the summer blockbuster also features time trekking as a central plot component.

In fact, one character manages through his time-travelling actions to pretty much recreate the entire familiar Star Trek universe, allowing for not only new relationships among old characters and a whole new potential franchise of sequels, but also the cool sight of young Spock meeting old Spock (Leonard Nimoy himself).

Of course, time travel in fiction is nothing new, going back at least as far as H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine” and Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” in the late 19th century.

And “Lost” is hardly the first TV show to explore the concept of moving through time. Shows such as “The Twilight Zone” and, of course, the original “Star Trek” were doing it more than four decades ago.

But what hit me as I watched “Lost” is how this science-fictional idea of time jumping seems especially appropriate – almost a metaphor – for the cultural times in which we find ourselves.

We live in the Age of Cultural Time Travel.

Our iPods, for instance, shuffle us from the latest hit song to the golden oldie and back again, with no concern for the chronological history of music or for consistency of musical genre. I don’t remember my old CD player – much less record player – doing that so seamlessly.

On our 5,000-channel big-screen TVs, we can surf from the latest show to endless repeats of 70s sitcoms, ‘80s dramas, or ‘90s music videos, everything available on some specialized channel at every hour of the day.

And of course, on the Internet, almost the entire history of almost every cultural product – movies, books, TV shows, songs, commercials, cartoons, video games – is available in different formats at any time for downloading, viewing in any order you want, and mashing up and reconfiguring into something new.

In this era, many of us experience our culture the same way that the characters on “Lost” experience their physical reality: As a non-linear shuffle from one place – or thing – to another.

It’s not that everything old is new again, but more like everything old and new is all there together. Young Spock meeting old Spock is the defining image of our times.

What does it mean? Well, if you are growing up in this era, it means that all of this cultural time jumping is the norm for you. Your 13-year-olds may know the latest dance moves, plus the exact choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video, twice as old as they.

For many of us who grew up in another era… well… we recently time-jumped into this place and it may take some time to get our bearings straight.

Anyone know the way back to 1984?