A House of the Provinces
Published in the Ottawa Citizen, February 22, 2013
The Prime Minister is painted into a corner on Senate reform. Between a commitment to the Triple E model to which, ostensibly, western Canada is wedded but which appears impossible to implement, to a Supreme Court reference about his proposals for fixed Senate terms, amending election and property ownership qualifications of senators or outright abolition of the Senate, it would appear he has little room to reform the Senate in his current mandate. Now anomalies regarding housing expenses threaten to discredit at least a few members of the Red Chamber. A minor scandal as scandals go, it has nonetheless poked a stick into the hornet's nest of public dissatisfaction with how Senators are appointed, with what they do and the length of time in which they should be allowed to do it.
Before Stephen Harper gives up on Senate reform, he might want to pick up the phone to his new found political pal and trading partner, Angela Merkel. The German Bundesrat provides some valuable lessons about how an upper house should work. In fact, the Bundesrat is so interesting, various Canadian task forces and conferences on the subject have suggested similar 'House of the Provinces' models. Why? Because with refinements, it is workable and addresses many of the issues currently plaguing Canada's upper house.
Germany's Bundestag, like Canada's House of Commons, is elected by the German people and is the country's highest legislative authority. Since Germany too has a federal system, its regional governments have important powers and legislative authority. The Bundesrat, Germany's upper house, is the institution in which they are represented. Unlike Canada's appointed senators, however, members of the Bundesrat are more like our provincial intergovernmental affairs ministers who are delegated to represent their regional government in the Bundesrat, to review Bundestag legislation and to vote on matters which affect them. This allows for checks-and-balances but also for co-operation and mutual consideration between the two levels of government as well as between the regional governments.
Yes, you say. Sounds good. Especially if it means the end of federal provincial squabbling and embarrassing expense account issues. But how do we get there from here and why is it important anyway? In this latter respect, Germany provides not merely the model for reforming the Senate, but also the reason why such reform is important.
During the Second World War Germany, along with Japan, endured the ultimate in depreciation of physical and political capital. They retooled and rebuilt in both areas to become powerhouses of the global economy that, even today, and even with Japan's demographic and financial challenges, provide their citizens with one of the highest standards of living in the world. Modernised economically and politically, both went on to demonstrate how social cohesion, industrial capacity and institutional coherence are vital tools against the growing irrelevance of today's (often literally) bankrupt nation state. For Canada, whose resource based economy resides in provincial jurisdiction where separatist tension is ever present, the need to find the institutional model that will similarly strengthen provincial and federal capabilities couldn't be more pressing.
To achieve this, Harper could resurrect the 'emissary' process that successfully merged the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservative Parties. With little muss or fuss, senior party statesmen from both sides worked out a deal. Where Senate reform is concerned, and if the Bundesrat model is acceptable, federally and provincially appointed emissaries, say three each with deep knowledge of Canada's constitutional history, could negotiate seats and powers. Ratification would then take place in accordance with jurisdictional requirements (some provinces need a referendum, others don't). Agreement from seven provinces with fifty percent of the population is needed for a constitutional amendment on Senate reform, so getting this done shouldn't be impossible.
That Canada's governments must be prepared to amend the constitution on an incremental, stand alone basis, is a given. Another given is that the prime minister and everyone else must stand aside from previously held positions and painted corners.
Margret Kopala was one of the Ordinary Canadians who participated in the Constitutional Conferences leading to the Charlottetown Accord. She has since maintained an abiding interest in Senate reform.