It’s been obvious from the first Reform Party convention.
The reason the various iterations of Canada’s Conservative Party – from Preston Manning’s Reform Party through the Canadian Reform Alliance Party to the Canadian Alliance Party to today’s Stephen Harper Conservative Party – are fixated on “fixing” the Senate is to create paralysis between it and the House of Commons.
They see American-style institutional gridlock as their weapon to forever block big, activist, “lefty” governments, the kind that have governed Canada for most of its history and created its panoply of now severely diminished national social programs.
Earlier this year, Matthew Mendelsohn, director of the University of Toronto’s Mowat Centre and an associate professor in the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy, published a paper arguing that the best version of Senate reform is the exact opposite of the Conservative government’s preference.
He wants the government simply to disempower the Senate by severely curbing its powers, restricting it to a suspensive (temporary) veto only.
But the Conservatives’ Supreme Court reference seeks legal backing either to turn the creaky, appointed, anachronistic upper house into a Canadian knock-off of the super-powerful and dominant American Senate or abolish it entirely. According to the constitution, Ottawa needs the support of seven of the 10 provinces representing 50 per cent of the population to make any constitutional changes.
Ominously, the federal reference doesn’t seek to reduce the Senate’s powers – now co-equal to the House of Commons with the sole exception of not being able to introduce money bills – nor to change the sole prerogative of the prime minister to appoint senators. It simply asks the Supreme Court to amend the constitution to allow the election of senators by provinces – no change to representation, no change to prime ministerial appointment and no discussion of powers.
This, the worst of all worlds, would, if granted by the court, turn the upper chamber into a version of the powerful U.S. Senate without addressing any of its vivid representational and democratic shortcomings.
Meanwhile, the Quebec Court of Appeal ruled in October that Ottawa must have provincial approval to hold Senate elections and set eight or nine-year term limits.
While the U.S. Senate has two senators per state regardless of population, Canada has a crazy quilt of representativeness or rather unrepresentativeness. Prince Edward Island has four senators – one for every 36,441 citizens. Ontario, with the maximum 24 senators, has one for every 565,988 citizens.
Canada’s Senate also has co-equal power with the democratically-elected House of Commons except it cannot introduce money bills.
If the Harper government is allowed by the Supreme Court to steam ahead with its own politically self-interested constitutional changes without consulting the provinces and addressing these glaring and profoundly undemocratic inconsistencies, Canada will find itself with a far worse version of the institutional gridlock that is the hallmark of the American presidential-congressional system.
At least the Americans in 1782 knew what they were creating, whereas today, in 2013, Canadians could end up with a grab-bag of what the current Canadian government wants and the Supreme Court decides to give.
That could boil down to the Harper government’s unique blend of prime ministerial appointment of provincially-elected senators with no change to either their powers or their representativeness – a prescription for Washington-style political paralysis in Ottawa.
From its founding, the U.S./Alberta inspired Reform Party has championed the “Triple-E” – elected, effective and equal – Senate.
But as the saying goes, where you stand depends on where you sit. And that’s no longer easy, particularly for the current government.
Since taking office in 2006, the Harper Conservatives have found themselves faced with a dilemma. What do they want more? A powerful central government with the political clout and determination to ride roughshod over provincial rights and sensibilities, as Harper has been avidly pursuing with his steadfast refusal to meet formally with the premiers? Or a fully empowered Triple-E Senate with the authority to stop even a majority federal government like their own dead in its tracks?
Harper has yet to show his hand. Perhaps he hopes he can have both.
The Supreme Court may decide the matter for him. Or not.
Either way, things could unravel for the prime minister.
He knows his Western base is wedded to small government – except for law and order, crime and punishment, continuous tax cuts, building up the military, robust resource extraction and American-style populist institutions like an elected upper chamber.
But at the same time, particularly as a command and control prime minister, Harper isn’t the type to take kindly to hitting roadblocks – like a politically hostile but now elected and empowered Triple-E Senate – now in his way.
And that’s when things go from confusion to outright cross purposes.
“Certainly as prime minister, you don’t want an empowered Senate,” Mendelsohn says. “But if your longer-term strategic goal as prime minister is to have a house of parliament that is more dysfunctional, a chamber where deadlock can occur, then making it more difficult for the federal government to do anything actually becomes a rational political strategy.”
That’s particularly true, Mendelsohn continues, “if your goal is to make it more difficult for the federal government to ever again do big national social programs, or big national revenue-sharing programs.”
He believes it’s clear the Supreme Court is going to rule that the federal government’s path forward is unacceptable without significant provincial consent.
“But which of the various pieces [of Senate reform] will require seven provinces and fifty per cent of the population and which pieces will require unanimity is unclear,” Mendelsohn continues. He predicts that all but eliminating the property requirement to be a senator – which doesn’t get much attention at all – will, in the view of the justices, require constitutional amendment with provincial consent.
“We’ve got a political challenge now,” he continues. “The court is likely to say that the feds can’t move forward as they would like to, or as proposed. So that will create an opening or space for people to move in and maybe other issues will arise.
“Maybe the court will say the status quo of the Senate is not acceptable, the path the feds have chosen is not viable because its needs the consent of the provinces to elect Senators and they’re not going to get it. So let’s look around and find another.
“Ideally, I hope people end up on my path – limiting the Senate’s powers.”
Frances Russell was born in Winnipeg and graduated from the University of Manitoba with a Bachelor of Arts degree in history and political science. A journalist since 1962, she has covered and commented on politics in Manitoba, Ontario, B.C. and Ottawa, working for The Winnipeg Tribune, United Press International, The Globe and Mail, The Vancouver Sun and The Winnipeg Free Press as well as freelanced for The Toronto Star, The Edmonton Journal, CBC Radio and TV and Time Magazine.
She is the author of two award-winning books on Manitoba history: Mistehay Sakahegan – The Great Lake: The Beauty and the Treachery of Lake Winnipeg and The Canadian Crucible – Manitoba’s Role in Canada’s Great Divide. Both won the Manitoba Historical Society Award for popular history.
She is married with one son and two grandsons and lives in Winnipeg.