Moving Forward, in an Indirect Way
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, September 9, 2006

“Until there is agreement on what the Senate is supposed to do, there will be no agreement on its modification.”
David E. Smith, The Canadian Senate in Bicameral Perspective

“The primary mandate of a reformed Senate should be to protect provincial interests, powers and responsibilities.”
Resolution 2b, for discussion at the Calgary Congress Sept 29-Oct 2, 2006

The capacity of a reformed Senate to address grievances and bridge regional divides cannot be overestimated so the task before the Special Committee on Senate Reform that started hearings this week is considerable.

It is studying two proposals.

The first, Bill S-4 is a government proposal to set future Senators’ terms at eight years. Additionally and in a statesman–like appearance before the committee, the prime minister revealed a bill to facilitate what appears to be de facto election of Senators at the national level should be revealed later in the autumn.

The second proposal is a motion by Senators Jack Austin and Lowell Murray to increase Western Canada seats in the Senate.

At the end of September, the special committee will issue its report and recommendations.

All are attempts at incremental change. The government’s current Bill S-4 and proposed elections bill will use legislative means while the Murray/Austin resolution requires a constitutional amendment, which the Senate has jurisdiction to initiate, that will only succeed if 7 provinces with 50% of the population plus Parliament agree.

Incremental change is laudable but only if the final picture is place. And because it isn’t, the predictable red flags fluttered after only two days of hearings. Can the government achieve indirectly what directly would require a constitutional amendment? Lacking the legitimacy of a constitutional amendment, will elected senators be anything more than institutionally mischievous symbols of an empty process?

Will argument degenerate to partisan lines?

Will the Murray/Austin amendment be vetoed by the government?

Given western Canada’s expanded population base, giving it more Senate seats would appear to be a particularly good, relatively neutral place to start on Senate reform. But a government intent on control and completion of an urgent to-do list could give it short shrift.

This is a pity. Provincial premiers have no appetite for constitutional change, but the citizenry may. Has anyone enquired?

Someone should because they may find Canadians oppose only poor management of constitutional change, not change itself. Moreover, and despite some manifest pride in a venerable institution intelligently crafted to serve the national interest, one which the prime minister himself seems to share, they might also find undercurrents of a reform movement insistent on greater representation for provinces in Ottawa.. The Triple E model for Senate reform, now official policy of the Alberta government, will be reincarnated at the Calgary Congress at the end of September while Quebec Premier Jean Charest recently revived speculation about the German Bundesrat, or House of the Provinces, model.

And from the earliest days of Confederation, others have forged a provincialist path toward Senate reform that this Senate committee and this government cannot ignore. Indeed, for those interested in wholesale reform and the changes it would effect not only in Parliament but in the federation, the Quebec-Alberta axis is a promising development, one that could attract other provinces. For instance, the Triple E and Bundesrat models are not incompatible. Each allows for provincial governments to send delegations to the Senate. Under this system, selection methods and term limits become relatively simple. Once the appropriate number of seats is allotted, each province could make its own determination in these areas – a feature no premier could ignore. Because an elected Senate would impact responsible government, powers between Parliament’s two houses would have to be adjusted.

But this, or any new model, cannot be achieved piecemeal.

None of the above will be news to this Senate committee, which renders its options all the more stark. Should it attempt the impossible with its own wholesale constitutional amendment(s) and, if successful, change the federation forever? Or should it support the government’s stop-gap, rescindable measures by tinkering at the margins and risk creating as many problems as it solves?

In a post modern world that exposes the nation state to new dynamics, Canada is no exception. If change is inevitable, who better than senators, in elegant testament to services rendered, to author the metamorphosis of their own institution?

At a minimum, this Senate Committee should include such a proposal in its recommendations. And the prime minister, who challenged the Senate to implement change, should give it full support to do just that.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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