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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.

Bed-in Birthday

26 May

It was 40 years ago today…

… that John Lennon and Yoko Ono checked into two adjoining suites on the 17th floor of Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. They remained there, of course, for seven days, hosting a variety of celebrities, well-wishers, detractors and an endless stream of international media. It all culminated on June 1, 1969, with the hotel-room recording of one of Lennon’s most famous anthems, “Give Peace A Chance“.

The entire week-long stay in Montreal was the second of two Bed-Ins that were among a variety of pop cultural / media initiatives the famous couple undertook in the era to promote peace (The first had been held in Amsterdam a couple of months earlier, during Ono and Lennon’s honeymoon).

A terrific ongoing exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts tells the whole story.

The couple was very clear about what they were trying to accomplish: Leveraging their celebrity in the pursuit of a larger social goal. Here’s what Lennon said at the time:

“I know I’m one of these ‘famous personalities.’ For reasons only known to themselves, people do print what I say. And I’m saying ‘peace’ … Henry Ford knew how to sell cars by advertising. I’m selling peace, and Yoko and I are just one big advertising campaign. It may make people laugh, but it may make them think, too. “

In a sense, Lennon and Ono were pioneers. Nowadays, four decades on, celebrity activists are a dime a dozen. But how well do they help the causes they support? And aside from one classic song, what is the enduring impact of John and Yoko’s week at the Queen E?

Here is a link to a televised discussion I produced that deals with those very questions.

Weekend Tune: A Not-So-Quick One

5 Nov

In December of 1968, The Rolling Stones filmed a televised concert special for the BBC, featuring themselves, the Who, John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Eric Clapton, Taj Mahal, and others.”The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” was shot in front of a live audience on a set decorated as a big top, and featured acrobats, clowns and other circus performers appearing between the star musical acts.

It took two days to record the event. Then, it took almost 28 years for the entire film to see the light of day.

Why? Because – the legend goes – the Who’s performance of a single song was so much better than the Stones’ performance of six of their own songs that Mick, Keith et al. were too embarrassed to let the footage see the light of day. The film lived on in legend only for many years (although the Who’s performance was first seen in the 1979 documentary “The Kids Are Alright”) until it was finally released theatrically in the ’90s. A really great DVD version came out a couple of years ago and is worth seeking out.

So did the Who whomiliate the Stones? Judge for yourself. First, here’s the Who doing “A Quick One While He’s Away”, Pete Townshend’s first attempt at a mini-rock-opera, released several years before “Tommy”:

Next, here’s the Stones’ opening number, the then-just-released Jumpin’ Jack Flash. They were introduced… kinda… by John Lennon and their performance in the film was the group’s last featuring Brian Jones, shortly before he was kicked out of the band, and later found dead:

Just for good measure, here’s Lennon, Yoko writhing in a bag by his feet, fronting an amazing ad-hoc supergroup dubbed “The Dirty Mac” – Clapton, Keith Richards and drummer Mitch Mitchell from the Jimi Hendrix Experience – and performing “Yer Blues”, another then-just-released track off the Beatles’ White Album: