The time is right for Canada's leaders to unite on Senate reform
by Margret Kopala

Published by the Ottawa Citizen, November 22, 2003

It was a weekend dense with political activity -- the Liberal leadership convention, the Grey Cup Summit between Paul Martin and the premiers, plus the annual Alberta PC policy conference. That another key political event should escape notice is therefore understandable. But there it was, tucked away in the fine print, lurking, daring to be discovered: Paul Martin agreeing to consider Senate reform.

Health Minister Anne McLellan, in similarly indiscernible circumstances, went further. Believing real Senate reform will require constitutional reform and that anything else would be piecemeal, the Edmonton West MP suggested the provinces and territories negotiate and agree to a reform proposal. "At that point you'd probably find a government of Canada pretty willing to accept what they've come up with," she said.

And so opens the door to Senate reform, not with a bang, but sneaking up on you. Whatever the style of the overture, Canada's premiers shouldn't hesitate to consider it.

The arguments for reforming the Senate are familiar enough: the need for a stronger regional presence in Parliament and, given wide distaste for patronage, the need for a new selection process. Canada has managed with these deficiencies for some time, but new political dynamics, particularly in the West, make the need for Senate reform increasingly urgent. It isn't just free trade, which is turning westerners southward, or the inability of the federal government to act on mad cow and softwood lumber, or build better highways. It is also a new class of citizens who are psychologically as well as geographically removed from Ottawa. Whether they holiday in Las Vegas, Hawaii or Hong Kong, few are visiting Ottawa, literally or metaphorically and certainly not politically.

The other problem is the growing impatience of a western, mostly Alberta-based, intelligentsia, who last weekend succeeded in getting their Alberta Agenda (the firewall proposals which would see Alberta run its own pension plan, police and tax collection services) on the provincial agenda. Speculation the proposals have the support of 32 MLAs, as well as a growing number of citizens' groups, compelled a reluctant Ralph Klein to refer them to a committee for further exploration. Neither populist protesters nor westerners wanting in, its authors are smart, highly competitive and tactically astute. One of them, Ken Boessenkool, argued in this week's National Post that the Alberta Agenda is a sign of the province's "new assertiveness," but like Quebec's assertiveness, it could extend beyond some new arrangement in Confederation. In fact, Quebec is its model and the Clarity Act (a how-to for separation) its primary instrument.

One obvious antidote to these new political dynamics is to forge stronger east-west ties.

The agreement of seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population and Parliament is required to amend Section 23(2) -- that part of the Constitution Act dealing with the Senate. Provincial governments can initiate an amendment, as can the Senate or House of Commons. The Triple-E model which calls for an equal number of senators from each province who are also effective and elected, has merit. But a House of the Provinces, which requires senators to account to their provincial governments rather than a partisan federal party, is the more promising model for giving provinces meaningful participation in the federal government.

With the Meech and Charlottetown nightmares still vivid, the prospect of reopening the Constitution will hold little appeal. Still, who but those with a clear memory should reopen it? And when should this be done, if not now when there's a federalist government in Quebec ... and Alberta?

To begin, the premiers can agree that Senate reform be approached as a stand-alone amendment. The objective is to address the Senate, not every grievance or constitutional problem in the country. Then they can demonstrate their ability to work together by fixing interprovincial trade, standardizing securities regulations and crafting a procedure around health-care financing and accountability with which all, Alberta included, can live.

Canada's Constitution is a living, resilient instrument. To fail to trust it is the real failure, and though constitutional reform should not become an everyday occurrence, neither should it languish interminably without attention.

Now, let's see. Reform the Supreme Court next? Maybe we can slip it in following the Canada Day Summit in, say, 2010?

Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.

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