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Nabi: Make No Little Plans

June 26, 2011

Elected, equal, and effective. the Reform party’s mantra for Senate reform may be on the horizon, now that Stephen Harper has his majority in both houses. But the Triple-E vision doesn’t seem to jive with his provincial counterparts. Québec is threatening to go to the Supreme Court if it has to. Ontario, BC, and Nova Scotia want to abolish the Senate entirely.

Preston Manning has commented that abolishing the Senate would be “a formula for national disunity” because the country’s regions wouldn’t be equally represented in Parliament. To be honest, I don’t quite buy that argument. Last I checked, Parliament existed to represent people, not abstract lines on a map. But for the purposes of this article, I’ll entertain the need for regional equality in Canadian politics.

The impracticalities of an elected Senate have been well-documented. Among them is the hugely daunting task of running a provincewide Senate election campaign, the costs of which could only feasibly be backed by the established national parties. No independent Senate candidate is going to be able to afford an election campaign that requires a goose-chase from Toronto to Timmins to Thunder Bay. Seen in this light, an elected Senate might simply extend the influence of partisan ideology rather than encourage legitimate regional representation.

Ah, yes, the complications of disrupting tradition. To quote the American urban planner Daniel Burnham, “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably will not themselves be realized.” In other words, we need an unorthodox alternative to the current Senate system that involves more than just scrapping the institution completely. If it’s regional equality we need, Harper and his reformists are thinking too small. If we’re going to reform the Senate, let’s do something wild. Something so crazy, it just might work.

There is quite a simple solution to all this: let the provinces and territories themselves be a check and balance on the House of Commons.

Yes, let’s abolish the Senate, but in its place form a Council of Premiers – elected, effective, but certainly not equal. This Council’s veto power would be restricted to objections based on the grounds of regional inequality. If a bill marginalises one province or territory, let it be amended and sent back to the House of Commons. The Council would not have the power to introduce legislation, as the current Senate does. Its sole mandate would be to ensure that federal legislation maintains regional equality.

Canada is built on federalism, and Stephen Harper has spent the last five years subtly giving the provinces more autonomy. So why not let the country’s First Ministers take on the responsibilities of the upper house? After third reading in the House of Commons, let bills be approved by the Council of Premiers before being given Royal Assent.

The federal government already holds a First Ministers’ conference once a year to address provincial and territorial concerns, and to ensure that relations remain strong between the two tiers of government. Premiers are never shy about giving the media their opinion on federal legislation. It’s simply naïve to presume that provincial politics is isolated from the decisions of Parliament.

A Council of Premiers would have the added benefit of making provincial and territorial elections more meaningful; on top of selecting their riding’s representative, voters would also be choosing their collective ambassador to Ottawa.

Another side effect would be a reduced need for equalisation payments. Since Premiers would have final say on proposed legislation, the resulting laws are more likely to be fair to all regions of Canada. It makes more sense to ensure equality at the source, rather than doling out cash as a counterbalance after the fact.

Call me crazy, but a Council of Premiers may be just what Stephen Harper needs to get his detractors on board with Senate reform. The only good reason for an upper house is to ensure regional equality. Who better to ensure that equality than the leaders of the provinces and territories?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2011 1:28 pm

    I know I may be alone on this one but I think its time for constitutional conventions again (although now that I think about it what you are proposing would require one). I have my preferences on democratic reform (Australia’s system to be exact) but I’m not pushy. I just think we need to start talking about democracy again.

    • June 27, 2011 9:58 pm

      Let’s take Nunavut’s lead and implement consensus-based government!

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