Harper gambles on Senate reform
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 05 June 2006

At long, long last, Ottawa has begun to reform the Senate.

You can’t rush history. It only took about thirty years of asking.

The Harper government introduced a Bill last week which, if passed, will limit the appointment of future senators to eight-year terms.

This is the first small step.

The next will be bigger. The prime minister also pledged last week to appoint no more senators unless they have been elected by the people they represent.

He will consult with the premiers about how to do this. They seem distinctly cool to it.

In fact he’s running a risk. This whole agenda is open to political and constitutional attack.

Politically, the Senate’s massive Liberal majority has the power to veto his Bill forever.

But senators may lack the nerve, because it would hurt the Liberals politically.

They would appear to be saying to the country, “Leave us be. We are entitled to our entitlements.”

More strenuous opposition -- perhaps even a constitutional challenge -- might come from the provinces, especially Quebec.

There’s much irony in this. The main reason we have a Senate was to protect provincial interests in Parliament. It says so in the Constitution Act, 1867.

In fact, number 14 of the Quebec Resolutions -- the basis for Confederation negotiated among the provinces in 1864 -- stipulated that the Senate was to consist of *provincial party* representatives, reflecting as much as possible their current representation in *provincial legislatures*.

Think about that for a moment.

The perplexing question is how the provinces lost the right they had negotiated to name their own senators.

A lawyer I know in Quebec, Vincent Pouliot, has looked into it, and offers an interesting, though speculative, answer.

He says it’s clear that our first Prime Minister, John Macdonald, struck a quiet bargain with then Governor General Charles Monck that Macdonald could run Canada without interference, if Macdonald let Monck and Britain run foreign affairs.

So, among other things, Monck let Macdonald pick senators, when logically they should have been selected by provincial premiers and opposition leaders.

But why didn’t the premiers squawk?

Good question. Perhaps it was because in the old days, when the constitution still meant something, Ottawa kept its fat federal nose out of the provinces’ social and economic affairs. Ottawa had national responsibilities that were quite different. So why fight over appointing federal senators?

A much better question would be, why do today’s provincial premiers evince so little interest in reforming the Senate now?

For Ottawa is now neck deep in provincial responsibilities, and has been for four decades; yet all the premiers ever talk about are greater federal transfers.

The sad reality is that after forty years of taking money and marching orders from Ottawa, premiers aren’t leaders any more, they’re just bureaucrats.

They don’t think about freedom and self-governnment, only about federal funding.

When Harper showed up at the premiers’ meeting in Manitoba last week, he must have felt like he’d stepped from a Calcutta taxi into a swarm of beggars.

“Baksheesh! Please, Mister Prime Minister, give equalization baksheesh for my crippled province!”

We see today the disturbing spectacle of a prime minister who believes in provincial rights and responsibilities, and provincial premiers who don’t.

Ottawa has trained them well -- too well.

To borrow Harper’s signature sign-off, “God save Canada.”

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.