Senate Reform is Still Possible
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, December 13, 2008
The recent fiscal update notwithstanding, the prime minister’s reputation as a tactician gifted in seeing where the puck will be is more than justified. But unless he acts prudently in the matter of Senate appointments, he risks going down in history as another John “had a choice” Turner.
Make no mistake. Fierce lobbying for Conservative senate appointments has been underway ever since the prime minister indicated he would appoint senators rather than pin any hopes that some future government would adopt his cause for Senate reform. These appointments, we learned this week, may occur before Christmas. But by rushing to appoint hacks and flacks who obstinately adhere to rigid ideas around Senate reform ensures the current stalemate will continue and that any hope of reform is effectively dead.
Reform, however, is possible. For one thing, the current situation gives the prime minister the opportunity to retreat from the corner into which old Reform sentiment had backed him on the Senate. Triple “E” (a Senate that is equal, elected and effective) was useful as a slogan that brought reform into the national consciousness but as a prescription it raised huge questions.
If, as part of the prime minster’s “incremental” plan for Senate reform, senators are elected, under whose banner do they run? Are they members of federal or provincial parties? How does this make them different from a member of Parliament? If neither, what is their constitutency and if provincial, what do premiers feel about non-aligned ‘elected’ senators speaking on behalf of their provinces? Just how many voices do we need speaking for any given constituency and how many, now incrementally rising, numbers of salaries and pension benefits should taxpayers indulge? And once elected, what’s to stop senators from excercising their newly gained legitimacy by thwarting the will of the House?
Given these difficulties and the degree of partisanship that has infected the Senate, Mr.Harper has an opportunity to clear the decks, start fresh and create a climate for Senate reform that has a real chance of succeeding. How? The answer is simple. By appointing credible senators who will command respect everywhere but particularly in the Senate itself. Most particularly, they should command respect from Liberal and other Senators whose co-operation will be necessary to sponsor a stand alone constitutional amendment on Senate reform.
That they should be committed to Senate reform goes without saying. And that they should be willing to abide by party discipline, a valid instrument in our parliamentary system, is also a given. Other than that, they should have wide berth to exercise their proven abilities in consensus building and their intellectual capacity to appreciate the structure and nuances of Confederation. Both will be necessary to forge the agreements necessary between and among all the federal political parties and the seven of ten provincial governments who must finally approve any amendment on Senate reform and which the Senate is constitutionally empowered to undertake.
No other institution has better qualifications, better resources, enough time and the corporate memory for doing what is necessary to reform the Senate. Equally propitious, the return of Jean Charest as premier of Quebec provides a window of opportunity to bring Quebec onside. Though his government has threatened legal action against any unilateral initiative by Ottawa on Senate reform, he has spoken in favour of the German ‘bundesrat’ or House of the Provinces model, a model which would provide the necessary refinements to make Triple E work.
By failing to seize this opportunity, the prime minister risks permanently poisoning the one institution which has a chance of providing Canada with political, cultural and procedural cohesion. If his goal is a country in which regional aspirations are reconciled, he should look now to how the puck will get there.
MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.