State of the Nation, February 2009
Friday, 27 February 2009

The coalition failed, but the deadlock remains

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The federal scene has changed dramatically since we wrote our post-election newsletter in November.

The opposition coalition which blindsided and nearly defeated the Harper government in December has come and gone, taking with it the last deluded ambitions of Stephane Dion.

The turmoil left all sides scarred. Parliament remains frozen in the regional stalemate that has paralyzed it since the collapse of the Mulroney Conservatives 16 years ago.

Polls show that the Bloc continues to hold Quebec, the Conservatives the West. The Atlantic provinces remain divided, unsure which party better guarantees the entitlements on which they depend. Meanwhile, Ontario, growing ever larger and ever poorer, moves slowly and uncertainly from Liberals toward the Conservatives.

Nobody gained ground from the opposition uprising.

Driven into a deficit budget and making Senate appointments, Harper has shaken the confidence of his own rank and file.

Among the Liberals there’s a wait-and-see lack of enthusiasm for Dion’s appointed successor, Michael Ignatieff.

Jack Layton, who got most of the credit for initiating the coalition, will probably now reap the penalty for its failure.

Gilles Duceppe will pay too. His kingmaker role in the coalition promised Quebeckers the unholy grail of power without responsibility, and then it was yanked away, reminding everyone of Quebec’s growing irrelevance. By voting for the Bloc they are losing leverage. For the first time in four decades nobody from Quebec can become Prime Minister.

Overall, nobody in Parliament now trusts anyone.

In this respect, Parliament reflects the country. Political disillusionment and regional resentment pervade all provinces and all parties.

There is a solution – not by any means a magical one but a good one. It lies in the Senate.

Parliament must regain its two most important freedoms

Like democracy itself, Parliament depends for legitimacy on the free exercise of two fundamental rights: to speak and to vote. Without them the institution is useless, or worse.

The main problem with our Parliament is that its members over time they have lost these two basic rights.

They are no longer allowed to speak frankly about Canada’s problems for fear of offending voters somewhere – anywhere – in the country. Causing offence would cost them the handful of seats that make the difference between forming a government or not.

No one region of Canada can by itself elect a government. This is good in one way, but has become detrimental in another.

MPs cannot, for example, challenge the needless, destructive economic transfers that smother large regions of the country. Atlantic Canada has 32 seats, Quebec 75, Manitoba 14.

first-ministers.jpgThey cannot defy conventional wisdom about contentious social issues. They can’t even cut back something as trivial as arts grants. Look what happened to the Conservatives in Quebec last fall when they did.

There are 308 seats in the House of Commons. The Conservatives took 143.

If only a dozen more seats – anywhere in the country – had tipped to the Conservatives, they would have a majority government today. The coalition could never have happened, and the deficit could have been half the size.

Likewise, if nine Conservative seats had gone another way, the government would be worse off than it was before the election, and Parliament even more wildly unstable and unproductive.

Harper is by far the most plain-spoken Prime Minister we have had in decades, but he learned long ago that no national party may speak freely on controversial issues. This applies to all national parties, not just his own. Candidates in every province must toe the national line. Divergence is not allowed, and offences are not forgiven. The cost is too high.

Small-c conservatives these past few months – especially since the January 27th budget – have accused Harper of forsaking his principles, of selling out, of being no better than the Liberals.

On several grounds, this is not true, but one ground alone will suffice.

The most obvious difference is that Harper wants an elected Senate, something that all other parties oppose.

Instead of seeking ways to punish Harper for running a deficit – something in which he had no realistic choice – conservatives should consider why Harper persists in his commitment to an elected Senate.

A provincially-elected Senate would open debates that are decades overdue

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Few Canadians have heard or pondered James Madison’s great constitutional dictum that “Power must check power, ambition must check ambition.”

Most Canadians know unfortunately little about our Senate – why it was established and what it could do.

What it could do is restore Parliament’s right to control a majority government. The Commons has lost that power. An elected Senate would recover it.

Legally, the Senate’s powers are equal to those of the House of Commons.

It doesn’t use these powers now, but could start using them tomorrow. It doesn’t have to ask for them, it already has them. Every federal law begins, “Her Majesty, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate and House of Commons of Canada, enacts as follows:”

Senate consent is essential, but nothing in law compels the Senate to give it.

As in the Commons, members of the Senate may put forward any Bill that does not involve money, and, like the Commons, the Senate holds a unilateral power of defeating the government on any matter of confidence such as a budget.

But the Senate doesn’t use its awesome legal clout because – unlike the government in the Commons – it has no elected mandate. Its members are chosen by the Prime Minister, and tenured until age 75.

In theory they could be as assertive as MPs by withholding their consent, but in practice they restrict themselves to offering advice. The most troublesome they get is to delay legislation in the interest of applying “sober second thought.”

(The only other practical function of senators is to help their national parties win elections. That’s how half or more of them got there, and what many continue doing.)

The one thing the Constitution explicitly requires of them is to represent their respective provinces. And this is the one thing they have never done.

Harper proposes to change this. He has told provincial governments that if they elect Senate candidates provincially, he will ensure their appointment, regardless of party.

Provincially-elected senators – that is, senators accountable through provincial parties to provincial electorates – would enjoy a freedom of speech at the national level that national parties have lost.

For example, a provincially-elected senator from Ontario could ask why in fifty years Ottawa has never once studied the impact of federal wealth transfers on his home province or on any others.

He or she could demand to know why Ontario and Alberta – whose economies pay the lion’s share of federal transfers – now have proportionately fewer teachers, nurses, doctors, hospital beds and university openings than the provinces that receive federal assistance.

He or she could hammer home the point that even though troubled Ontario will receive an equalization payment of $375 million this year, its first in history, the federal system will still remove a net $20 billion from the provincial economy to the benefit of other regions.

The reality is that over the decades, Ottawa’s now-$40 billion a year in regional wealth transfers do Canada more damage than a temporary $34-billion deficit. They are as bad for the regions that receive them as for those that pay them. They are bad for everyone.

But nobody in Parliament – the only place with the power to reduce them – dares talk about them. If they do, they relegate their party to opposition.

A provincially-elected Senate could speak freely on all economic and social issues, regardless of what is –or isn’t – being said next door in the Commons.

A provincially-elected senator, remember, owes nothing to any national party leader. He accounts for what he says and how he votes only to his provincial party back home, and to provincial voters in a provincial election.

This would abruptly end the self-censorship imposed on Parliament by the national parties. And until that self-imposed moratorium ends, nothing much can change.

Harper’s 18 new senators

In December, under threat of defeat by the united opposition, the Harper government abruptly changed course and filled all the Senate seats it had allowed to remain vacant for up to three years.

The 18 new senators were the customary contingent of pleasantly surprised party insiders and political neophytes – with one difference.

All 18 are committed to supporting federal Senate elections and eight-year term limitations. These were attempted by the government in the last Parliament, and will be introduced again in the new one. As well, the new senator for Saskatchewan, former CTV broadcaster Pamela Wallin, has promised to vacate her seat when that province holds its first Senate election in 2011.

For the record, we at the Citizens Centre find both of Harper’s reform proposals deficient. Elections should be provincially (not federally) mandated, and provinces should decide their own senatorial terms of representation. However, we accept that unless the provinces move ahead, Harper must do what he can federally.

We do not agree with those who claim that Harper “broke his promise” by appointing senators in December. Harper’s practice of leaving seats vacant was a preference, not a promise – a strategy, not a moral pledge. He had pushed non-appointment as far as it would go, with little effect. Clearly, most provincial premiers are content with the status quo and hope to wait him out.

Given the large number of Senate retirements this year, the government will soon have control of the upper chamber. If the Conservatives can then take ten or twelve more seats in a federal election, the federal reform Bills will go through.

When it comes right down to it, federal Senate elections are better than no elections. Maybe after the premiers find their provinces’ rights and interests being compromised and misrepresented by powerful federal party senators for national party purposes, they will wake up and lay claim to the election process.

Of course, nothing says that having spurned the election invitation for years it will then be renewed. If it isn’t, they will have only themselves to blame.

But the real losers will be Canadian citizens, not provincial premiers. Our chance to empower representatives to give voice and effect to our regional interests and aspirations within our nation’s Parliament will have been squandered.

Positive developments

Manitoba takes its first step

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The Legislature of Manitoba has appointed an all-party committee to consider whether and how to join the other two prairie provinces in electing senators. It is to report before the summer.

Although NDP Premier Gary Doer has expressed his party’s pro forma belief that the Senate should be abolished, the government seems to unofficially accept that it is constitutionally impossible to abolish the Senate. The only real choice lies between electing it and leaving it as it is.

(Abolition requires concurrent approval from all ten provincial legislatures, which is almost certainly impossible. Structural reform, on the other hand, requires approval of seven provinces representing at least half the population. Provincial Senate elections require no constitutional approval, but do not legally bind a prime minister.)

Alberta senator-elect Link Byfield, chairman of the Citizens Centre, accompanied by senator-elect Betty Unger, will address the Manitoba legislature committee on February 21. Also scheduled to speak were pro-election Manitoba Senator Terry Stratton and elected Alberta Senator Bert Brown. Expected to speak against Senate elections were Manitoba Senators Sharon Carstairs and Maria Chaput.

Canadians for an Elected Senate

unger-byfield.jpgElecting the Senate is something that almost everyone agrees with but few think about.

We suggest this is because few understand that a provincially-elected Senate would soon have as big an impact on Parliament as the Charter of Rights did on the courts after 1982.

As things now stand, the reform initiative rests almost entirely on the shoulders of one man, Stephen Harper – a minority Prime Minister who could be defeated within a year.

Nobody is more aware than he is that until more Canadians make Senate elections a priority, it’s hard for any Prime Minister to do more than Harper already has.

Electing the Senate must be more broadly discussed and endorsed among media, academics, provincial and federal politicians, and citizens in all regions.

Alberta senators-elect Betty Unger and Link Byfield have recently been floating the idea of a national organization to pursue provincial Senate elections. To convince the media to take it seriously, the group should be led by reform-minded senators and others of national stature. To convince politicians, it should draw broad grassroots membership in all parts of Canada.

Its goal would be to encourage all provincial governments to elect senators, and, as progress is made, to help the Senate discover its new role within Parliament.

Unger and Byfield will visit Ottawa in March to gauge the willingness of influential Senators, MPs and policy experts to create such a group.