In 1992, anyone foolhardy enough to utter the words “constitutional change” would have risked a trip to a mental health facility for observation.
After former prime minister Brian Mulroney’s two failed attempts at constitutional compromise — the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords — the country had had enough. That sentiment persisted through Jean Chrétien’s administration and into the first decade of the 21st century.
But this is 2011.
According to a recent poll, Canadians are willing to reopen that can of worms. Why? Mainly because they’re eager to see something done about the country’s unaccountable, unelected Senate.
And so is Stephen Harper. The newly mandated leader of a Conservative majority has put Senate reform on the top of his to-do list. Not too surprising, as he is under pressure to justify his own partisan appointments. (His new Senate majority already killed a climate change bill that had been passed by elected politicians.)
While some favour abolishing the Senate altogether, advocates for a reformed Senate appear to have the upper hand. But the how and why are both very tangly.
First, the why.
Simply put, it’s because we live
in a representative democracy. Anachronisms like the British House of Lords — on which the Senate was largely based — have no place in modernity.
But there is another reason for reform that presents a whole other raft of problems.
The Senate was structured to respond to regional interests — as opposed to provincial, federal or purely population-based agendas. By 1915, the allotment of senators was apportioned equally according to four regions — the Maritimes, Ontario, Quebec and the West.
The intent was to afford an extra voice for regions that have (or at least had) a separate and distinct political identity before Confederation.
When Newfoundland entered Canada, it was allotted six senators, the same as British Columbia. Although B.C. has considerably more people, its senatorial power exists only in the context of the western region as a whole.
In his 2007 paper “The Senate of Canada and the Conundrum of Reform,” Saskatchewan professor David E. Smith cites countless references to emphasize the goal early Canadian leaders had in mind for the Senate.
For example, a 1913 memorandum on the Maritime provinces stressed: “Representation by population, while accepted as a guiding principle in fixing the representation of each province in the Dominion parliament, was intended to be made subservient to the right of each colony to adequate representation in view of its surrender of a large measure of self-government.”
Subservient? That’s certainly a far cry from the useless appendage many consider the Senate to be today.
This, in fact, is where the excrement hits the wind turbine.
The gradual diminishment of proportional representation is a major bone of contention in provinces that have experienced population growth. Electoral
ridings in sparsely populated provinces such as Newfoundland are often larger in size but much less densely populated.
An elected, more accountable Senate based on anything other than raw vote count would not likely fly with populous provinces such as Ontario and Quebec.
In fact, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty wants to abolish the Senate. And Quebec has already vowed it will challenge through the courts any attempt by Harper to unilaterally tinker with the upper chamber.
As the Senate is a core Canadian institution, it will almost certainly entail a constitutional amendment, requiring assent of two-thirds of the provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population.
On the surface, a more regionally based power structure in Ottawa appears as a good thing for Newfoundland and Labrador. But hopes of achieving more than the status quo may prove to be little more than a pipe dream.
One thing is certain. With battle lines already drawn, Senate reform is poised to make Meech Lake look like a tea party.
Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s
commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at email@example.com.