A model for reforming democracy
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 2006

The prime minister is flexing his authority on Senate reform. While the appointments of David Emerson and Michael Fortier were an appropriate deployment of this authority, where institutional reform is concerned, it is not. Here process matters.

As a premier who has worked on the margins of Senate reform, Ralph Klein understands the issue better than most. His province elected several senators-in-waiting and, in 2003, enacted the Alberta Amendment, a resolution on Senate reform. This year, he chairs the Council of the Federation whose provinces have the resources and the authority to sponsor a constitutional amendment. Since approval for Senate reform requires only 7 provincial legislatures with 50% of the population, its chances of success are better than even. That the Council hasn’t attempted such reform speaks volumes about a reluctance to re-open the Constitution that dates back to the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. With too much political capital invested in constitutional reform packages that were simply too big, their failure traumatized the nation.

The prime minister, too, has tools and the authority with which to attempt the job. The weakest is his current proposal to legislate election of senators. Though it doesn’t re-open the Constitution, this proposal moves from the margins to de facto Senate reform and invites difficulties similar to those generated by the Emerson and Fortier appointments. At the heart of these is a clash of political cultures. That the appointments are consistent with the traditions of representative democracy does not detract from Canada’s growing populist tradition. Rather they point to a need for a reconciliation of cultures, a burden historically assumed by Canada and one for which the Conservative Party – itself a hybrid of Eastern Canadian toryism and Western Canadian populism – is uniquely suited.

While the Emerson and Fortier contradictions will be resolved in the next federal election, passing legislation to elect senators will instead institutionalize those contradictions.

In the first instance, major questions arise about who or what is being represented by newly elected senators. Are they the partisan representatives of a federal political party who will therefore be subject to party discipline? If, along party line, they rubber stamp or oppose legislation, how does this function differ from that of current parliamentarians? And that’s before any consideration of legitimacy or accountability issues, to name two.

To be sure, electing senators fulfills a Conservative campaign promise and appeases Alberta sentiment on this issue. Neither fish nor fowl, however, they would be little more than institutionally mischievous symbols of an empty electoral process.

The second, more utilitarian tool is a Senate committee. Like the Council of the Federation, it has the research capabilities and authority to sponsor a constitutional amendment. It has the added advantage of being able to act quickly. Concerns about opening a Pandora’s Box on the Constitution could be relieved by offering an amendment on a stand alone basis but would Canadians trust proposals from senators with so big a vested interest in their own survival?

Better than these controversial remedies is the all-purpose citizens’ assembly, the model for which exists in British Columbia’s recent exercise in electoral reform.

Working from the premise that ordinary citizens equipped with good information make good decisions, Texas professor James S. Fishkin coined the term ‘deliberative democracy’ in 1988. This concept formed the basis of the citizens’ assembly which, lacking partisan bias or manipulation, is gaining moral and political legitimacy on issues in which sitting politicians are in a conflict of interest, including electoral reform, pensions and salaries, and constitutional amendments. It also elevates civic discourse and promotes dialogue, a proven path to the kind of reconciliation Canada’s clashing political cultures so clearly need.

In B.C., this process took the form of an assembly comprising randomly selected citizens who deliberated, jury-like, on a range of electoral reform proposals presented by experts over many weekend sessions. So impressive was its work that the B.C. model has been noticed in Australia, Taiwan, the United Kingdom, California and Ontario. Like B.C.’s referendum question on electoral reform held during its provincial election, a National Citizens’ Assembly proposal on Senate Reform could be offered as a referendum question in the next federal election.

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

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