Harper's long-term goal becomes clear

Bert Brown enters the Senate, and Canada gears up for a constitutional struggle over the future role of Parliament's long-neglected Upper House

Bert Brown It has taken almost two years for Canadians to figure out where Stephen Harper is leading the country, and how he hopes to get there.

Frankly, the initial signs were mostly discouraging.

 Harper deliberately made it look like his government would enforce the Kyoto Protocol. He has spent even more money on programs than Paul Martin did, who spent more than any PM before him. Harper taxed western energy income trusts (but not eastern real estate trusts) after having promised not to. He has muzzled his caucus more completely than any Commons leader in Canadian history, and he has pandered shamelessly to Quebec.

So did all this mean Harper and his party have gone liberal? Or was it a smokescreen while a longer-term conservative game plan was put in place?

Developments this fall convince us at the Citizens Centre that Harper is not a liberal, and not becoming one. Rather, he’s a conservative leader of a country habituated to left-liberal thinking.

As soon as the Conservatives started polling above 40% this fall, and Harper gained confi dence he can win a majority, he began positioning to the right.

Everything in and since the October 16th throne speech proves it:

» Harper has now stated clearly his government will not impose Kyoto CO2 reductions. He appears set to outwait the international hysteria over “climate change,” doing only the politically-permissible minimum in the meantime.

» He has stated openly that his goal is to make Canada the world’s lowest taxed developed nation, and has begun making it so. Spending will decline only as taxes decline.

» He has refused to fill Senate vacancies and to use the federal “spending power.” Both refusals are unprecedented, and will soon precipitate a constitutional confrontation with the provinces.

People thought Pierre Trudeau was a constitutional wizard. Perhaps he was. He was certainly relentless, and he dragged the whole country reluctantly to the left.

Stephen Harper seems just as tough as Trudeau, and just as determined to drag it back to the right.

Harper almost never mentions the Constitution, because it’s a subject voters came to dislike in the 1980s and 1990s. But don’t be fooled. That’s where Harper’s going.

What Trudeau screwed up, we think Harper is determined to fix.

Senate reform and spending restrictions are the crucial points

Since 1867 only four Prime Ministers have left an enduring mark on the country: Macdonald, Laurier, King and Trudeau. In every case they established – or fundamentally changed – our basic, constitutional attitudes about how Canada should work.

Other PMs, whether good or bad, strong or weak, left the fundamentals much as they found them.

We believe that Harper is unusually ambitious and wants to be the fifth great PM. And that’s why, like Trudeau, he has always talked about two constitutional objectives: curtailing the federal spending power, and reforming the Senate. He doesn’t identify them as “constitutional.”

But they are.

Though a thousand unrelated urgencies inevitably crowd his agenda – equalization, Afghanistan, the environment – Harper keeps returning to these two unlikely subjects, which few voters, and even few politicians, think much about.

But they are central to how Canada works – or should.

Think how different our country would be if social policy were based, as it once was, on what people in each province valued and were willing to pay for (and not what they can get citizens in other regions to pay for). National social programs would be phased into provincially-run, provincially-funded programs, resulting in greater fl exibilty in delivery, better accountability, and less needless dependency on the state.

Think how different it would be if federal fads, fancies and fantasies like gun control and multiculturalism were restrained by a provincially-elected Senate.

Provinces typically gain nothing from these federal-party vote-getters, and would stop them in the Upper House.

Think of an Ottawa where Parliament focused on national matters like defence, national transport and foreign affairs, and left local concerns like culture, housing, infrastructure and health care to local governments.

Picture a federal Senate whose members consulted routinely with their home legislatures.

Ottawa would be more respectful of smaller provinces, and Canadians would be more united.

 Limited, responsible government, and true federalism – these were the original vision of Canada’s founders.

It’s our belief that this is what Stephen Harper wants slowly to restore.

If he succeeds, he will be remembered among the very best prime ministers in Canadian history.

Senate reform will be the battleground

As this newsletter went to press, Harper’s minority government, with help from the NDP, was engineering a national referendum on abolishing the Senate, to coincide with the next election.

The NDP know that most Canadians want the Senate reformed, but they see this as a way of drawing left-wing voters away from the Liberals.

The Tories will use it to highlight the whole subject of Senate reform, using it to balance their Quebecpandering with an issue that pleases most voters in all regions, especially the West. The Liberals just lose on this issue, everywhere.

However, there are important subtleties and paradoxes involved.

» Harper has said the Conservatives do not want to abolish the Senate, but to reform it. A referendum on abolition is the price the NDP is charging to let Harper fight an election on Senate reform.

» The Senate cannot be abolished or reformed by referendum, or even by Parliament alone. Any substantial change requires as well the consent of at least seven provinces representing at least half the population of Canada.

(It does not require unanimous provincial consent, as some are claiming. Neither does it require the consent of the Senate itself.  The Constitution Act 1982 is very specific about changes to the Senate.)

» The purpose of the Senate (as stated in Section 22 of the Constitution Act 1867) is to give provinces representation in Parliament. However, provincial premiers now do not want the Senate to represent them in Parliament. They do not relish being supplanted as chief federal spokesmen for their provinces by elected senators in Ottawa, even though they are largely powerless.

» Harper has invited the premiers for the past year to commit to holding provincial Senate elections, as Alberta has done since 1989. They have not accepted. This is bizarre.  Harper, at great cost to his own power, is trying to make them a gift of the Senate, and the premiers are refusing to accept it.

» Even though provincial premiers don’t want the Senate reformed, neither do most want it abolished.  Perhaps they sense voters would prefer to see the Senate reformed, but they just don’t want to do it.

How all this will play out in coming years is anyone’s guess. What a reformed Senate would look like is equally unpredictable today.

Would it be a “Triple E” Senate, with equal representation for all provinces, regardless of size? Our guess is probably not. Even as a Reform Party MP Stephen Harper said he doubted equality was politically achievable, and didn’t think the Atlantic provinces should have 40% of the power.

But the first thing politicians at both levels will have to decide is how to choose senators, not how many senators there should be.

There are only three practical alternatives to the federal-appointment status quo that Harper now refuses to exercise: (1) election by federal party nominations in federal elections; (2) election by provincial party nominations in provincial elections; (3) appointment by provincial governments or legislatures.

It is the view of the Citizens Centre, strongly shared by Alberta Senator Bert Brown and Alberta senator-elect Betty Unger, that option (2) is by far the best – provincial party election.

Option (1) – federal party election – is by far the worst. Putting federal parties and leaders in control of a House whose primary purpose is to represent provinces defeats the whole purpose.

Senators should be provincially chosen and should sit in provincial blocs, regardless of provincial party. Each of the four regional delegations (the West with 24 senators, Ontario with 24, Quebec with 24 and the Atlantic with 30) should elect a chairperson.

Those four should steer the business of the Upper House, and co-ordinate its activities with the Commons and the government.

Senators should also consult regularly with their home governments, legislatures and parties.

This would make parliamentary politics less predictable, more interesting, and much more sensitive to regional priorities, rights and interests.

It would also unify the country in a way that four decades of federal spending and sponsorship advertising have failed to do.