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If Harper can fix the Senate he's a constitutional magician

By Link Byfield
web posted November 12, 2007

It's odd how the issue of reforming the Senate keeps coming back. But not surprising.

Canadian SenateThe Senate is the great Unfinished Business of Confederation. It should have been settled 140 years ago.

Now it looks like Stephen Harper's Conservatives are angling to fight a national election on it.

Unfortunately, the politics have become truly Byzantine. Everything about the Canadian Senate is paradoxical and deceptive.

Conservative Senator Hugh Segal says he has the blessing of the Prime Minister to introduce a motion in the Senate calling for a referendum on whether the Senate should be abolished. This referendum would occur with the next national election.

Paradox 1: Sen. Segal himself does not want the Senate abolished – in fact he's a longstanding champion of reform. He may just want the Liberal Senate majority to defeat his motion in the Upper House, to show once again how obstructionist and undemocratic they are.

Because meanwhile, Jack Layton and the NDP (who have always wanted the Senate abolished) plan to introduce the same motion in the Commons, and the minority-government Conservatives, it is rumored, will ensure it passes.

Paradox 2: the Tories do not want the Senate abolished. They just want to make Senate reform the main issue of the next election campaign.

Paradox 3: it won't matter which way the referendum goes, because Parliament lacks the power to shut down the Senate. But either way, a referendum enables a majority Conservative government to open the whole constitutional issue of the Senate with the provinces.

The Constitution requires that most provincial governments agree to reform the Senate, or to vaporize it.

Paradox 4: provincial consent is required because the Senate is supposed to be the representative of the provinces in Parliament. Not that it has ever been. But the Constitution plainly states that's why it exists.

Paradox 5: The provinces themselves no longer want the Senate to speak for them. Provincial premiers long ago came to fancy themselves the defenders of their provincial powers and interests. It's a satisfying delusion on their part. Except for Quebec, Ottawa works them all like play-dough. Ottawa has the money, Ottawa has the spending power.

Paradox 6: the final absurdity. We have a Prime Minister who wants to give the provinces the Senate, gift-wrapped in ribbons – a chamber whose constitutional powers are almost equal to the House of Commons – and the premiers are refusing to take it.

Except for Alberta, not one provincial government is willing (so far) to hold Senate elections. Harper has asked them to and they won't. Even though there are already 12 Senate vacancies, and in two years over one-quarter of the seats in the Upper House will be empty, neither Harper nor the premiers intend to fill them.

Paradox 7: And for a simple reason. The premiers do not want provincially-elected senators supplanting them as federal spokesmen for their provinces, and Harper does not believe the Prime Minister should be filling a House of Parliament with partisan lackeys whose constitutional purpose is to hold him, when necessary, in check.

This bizarre situation signals something important.

It means that Harper, if he gets his majority, fully intends to reopen the Constitution, and will drive his own constitutional agenda just as relentlessly as Pierre Trudeau a generation ago.

And I say good. What Trudeau screwed up, Harper can fix.

Link Byfield is an Alberta senator-elect and chairman of the Citizens Centre. The Centre promotes the principles of personal freedom and responsible government.


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