Ralph Klein is set to leave his own national legacy
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, July 12, 2003

There was a time when federal conservatives would swoon at the idea of attracting Alberta Premier Ralph Klein to be their leader. When he declined, few were surprised. After all, why give up leadership of Canada's most prosperous province to take on the problems of a divided federal right? What no one anticipated was that the former journalist, ex-Calgary mayor and resident expert on western alienation would find himself in a leadership role in federal-provincial relations -- a role which, in today's Canada, is arguably the biggest political role of all.

Not a moment too soon, the Klein Revolution is quietly hitting the federal scene. As delegates to this week's annual premiers meeting lamented, the last 12 months saw federal-provincial relations plumb new depths. SARS, mad-cow, non-existent cod stocks -- to casual observers the complaints are familiar enough. To a 10-year veteran like Klein, the time to act was nigh. To buoy him on his way, a recent poll by Edmonton-based Cambridge Strategies revealed that 80 per cent of Albertans agree their province should be more proactive in setting the national agenda.

In his characteristic, get-it-done style, Klein has been on the move for some months. The first hint was his letter to the U.S. ambassador in Ottawa, Paul Cellucci, expressing support for the U.S.-led war in Iraq. Then in early June, Klein's legislature passed a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment to reform the Senate. More recent was his "state" visit to Washington to chat with Vice-President Dick Cheney about resolving the problem of access for Alberta beef to the U.S. market. Now he's promising to use the notwithstanding clause if gay marriage becomes national law.

Where does it end? The truth is this may be just beginning. Klein has seniority among Canada's provincial premiers, so in maestro fashion he introduced some important notes in Charlottetown this week. His modest proposal for annual first ministers' meetings gained immediate approval and opened a big door for Quebec Premier Jean Charest's proposals for a Council of the Federation. Provided the federal government agrees, both ideas offer hope for improving intergovernmental dialogue.

But even these noble suggestions may fall short. Savvy premiers knowledgeable about the state of the European Union recognize the danger of creating expensive supra-governmental organizations with no clear lines of accountability. Worse, lacking jurisdictional authority to make binding decisions, these same organizations could be toothless as well as expensive wonders.

But it is worth a try, if only to give Charest, a federalist, some well-deserved support. At a minimum, it could be a valuable stepping stone to more substantive change in the future. Discussions on constitutional change were nowhere to be heard in Charlottetown, but not for nothing was the Alberta resolution on Senate reform on the table. Klein knows, and the other premiers are learning, that comprehensive Senate reform, something more substantive than appointing senators from lists or creating councils, is the only way to dignify federal-provincial relations.

Klein has his work cut out. Assembling the premiers to initiate a constitutional amendment will be an arduous task with many impediments. But on Senate reform, provincial governments have clear authority to initiate such an amendment, which requires seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population to make it happen. Prudently managed, it could succeed. Additionally, the Alberta resolution provides useful talking points. Invoking the Triple E formula, it proposes six senators per province and two per territory, elected senators and veto power over legislation affecting provincial jurisdiction.

The formula has its flaws, notably the failure to define the nature of the representation of senators and the unnecessary requirement that all provinces elect their senators. The distribution of seats will be an issue. But once the premiers grasp the potential for creating a Senate controlled by provincial governments with binding authority to review, veto or initiate federal legislation, any other arrangement for dignifying federal-provincial relations will pale in comparison.

Alberta marks its 100th year in Confederation in 2005, after which Klein will likely retire. No politician could leave so fine a legacy as the reform of a national institution. And for the province that created the slogan "The West wants in," nothing could more strongly signal its arrival.

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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