Relic hunter .. Ontario premier tilts at Senate reform windmill

Mar 6th, 2006 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

The present Canadian Senate, Prime Minister Stephen Harper has aptly said, is “a relic of the 19th century.”

And there are some enlightened voters in Canada’s most populous province who do believe in the confused cause of Senate reform – as a long-term nation-building solution to the increasingly acute problems of regionalism in the diverse Canadian confederation, coast to coast to coast. But now we know that the present Premier of Ontario is not one of them.

Except do we, really? The woods in this part of the country are full of strange noises these days. This past Friday those north of the Great Lakes who are concerned about such things awoke to the news that “Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty says he would reform the Senate by abolishing it altogether … Ontario is the country’s most populous province, with 40 per cent of Canada’s total – yet it has only 22 per cent of the Senate seats, Mr. McGuinty said.”

In trying to figure out exactly what this means it is probably wise to remember that officials of Canada’s most populous province have a long tradition of speaking in strange and strategic intergovernmental tongues.

Plain Ontario people who still believe in more constructive and regionally representative Senate reform will stress that Premier McGuinty’s remarks actually had very little to do with the Senate.

They were mostly an early response to the brand new round of federal-provincial antagonism induced by the recent election of the Harper minority government in Ottawa (aided and abetted by the talkative Premier of Alberta?). And they finally just signal the true enormity of the new job that Stephen Harper may or may not be trying to take on.

What Dalton McGuinty really means?

From this point of view, at any rate, Premier McGuinty’s recent remarks are just using the as-ever-very-confused and slippery issue of Senate reform to remind the new federal elite in the Prime Minister’s Office that, even if the current Canadian dollar does increasingly look like a petro currency with its real economic headquarters in Calgary, almost four out of every 10 Canadians still live in Ontario. (In fact, the latest Statistics Canada population numbers show Ontario with just under 39% of the cross-Canada population: when the premier says 40% he is exaggerating a little for rhetorical effect.) And that is still bound to have some big enough implications for any kind of serious democratic reform of Canadian federal institutions.

Or, to be a bit more exact again (if also a little over the top), under the current increasingly irrational and creaky rules of the game, an Alberta-driven federal political party that won only 36.3% of the cross-Canada popular vote may be able to pretend for a while that it can run the Government of Canada all by itself. But not a province with barely 10% of the cross-Canada population. Canadian federalism is not quite that dysfunctional yet – even or especially now that “the West is in.”

There seems to be something of a clue to at least some still deeper meanings abroad in the land here in a column by old Upper Canada’s current finest business journalist Eric Reguly. It appeared in the Globe and Mail on the same day as Premier McGuinty’s remarks on Senate reform (though the premier apparently spoke to journalists later in the evening). It was entitled “Getting a piece of Ralph’s booty,” and its first and last paragraphs are worth quoting in full.

To start with, Mr. Reguly posed the problem: “Ralph Klein has a lot of money. The rest of us don’t, for the simple reason that so many deadbeat provinces aren’t sitting on billions of dead dinosaurs who had the courtesy to turn into a subterranean ocean of oil and gas. Today’s question, boys and girls, is how the rest of Canada can extract some of the riches from Alberta without the undeserving bastards noticing. Or noticing and not squawking about it.”

Mr. Reguly went on to explore four different potential answers to this question. None of them seemed altogether practicable in Canada’s current political and economic circumstances. And he concluded with the only answer that did seem to make sense: “Give up and wish Alberta the worst: Alberta is an oil economy, right? Not so. It’s mostly about gas. In fact, gas royalty revenue is almost four times greater than oil royalty revenue. Alberta’s gas production peaked in 2001. At the current rate of production, proven (though not theoretical) reserves will last a mere nine years. So let Alberta enjoy its fat surplus. In time, it will be poor again and seek money from the rest of Canada. Canada will know what to say.”

Mmm … And then, as if to finish the day with some official provincial government endorsement, the Premier of Ontario almost seemed to add something like: Meanwhile, let’s just abolish the Senate. So at least we won’t have to keep listening to Alberta’s wild and unreasonable talk about Senate reform, while we’re waiting for the dinosaur royalties to run out.

And what this has to do with real Senate Reform?

So does this also mean that Premier McGunity’s remarks have absolutely nothing to do with Senate reform at all? Well, not exactly, it would seem. Remember: this is the home province of The Incredible Canadian William Lyon Mackenzie King, who said “conscription if necessary, but not necessarily conscription.” And confirmed Senate reformers in Ontario can still see their way clear to some kind of positive spin on their premier’s latest related public musings.

Alberta, e.g., has certainly been the home province of the modern movement for Senate reform in Canada – ever since the provincial government in Edmonton published its impressive enough Strengthening Canada report on the so-called “Triple E” Senate (“elected,” “effective,” and “equal”) in the last half of the 1980s. All the exotic Triple E means is that Canada today ought to have an elected Senate like the Senates that have long existed in such other geographically vast federal systems as the United States and Australia – to represent the diverse regional geography of the country as well as its raw demographic numbers, in the institutions of the central government. “Regionalism,” on this argument, is a much more thorny political problem in Canada than it is in either of these related countries, partly because Canada lacks a proper regionally representative Senate.

The main problem with this argument has been that Canada is not in fact a country quite like either the United States or Australia. The crux of the difficulty here turns around the notion of “equal” provincial representation in a reformed Senate, on the US and Australian models. To start with, as Jacques Parizeau stressed when the issue was last more or less seriously debated in the early 1990s, whatever its ultimate future predominantly French-speaking Quebec is “not a province like the others.” And, even for many staunch Quebec federalists, the concept of provincial equality in a reformed Senate just tries to pretend that the French fact in Canada does not really exist.

Then, to make things worse, even outside Quebec Canada is more polarized between large and small provinces (or states) than either the United States or Australia. More exactly, a provincially equal Senate in Canada would give a majority of seats (and thus votes) in the reformed institution to the six smallest provinces, which together account for less than 15% of the cross-Canada population. Moreover, in a kind of variation on this theme, equal provincial representation could also amount to giving an almost permanent Senate majority to less affluent smaller provinces, which benefit from Canada’s unique federal-provincial revenue equalization system – a potential problem for the public revenue-generating capacities of Canada at large which ought to concern the “firewall” province of Alberta today at least as much as Ontario.

There are various conceivable solutions to these problems, that would still give Canada a proper regionally representative Senate in its federal institutions, and strike some laudable blows for nation-building as opposed to province-building in the longer term Canadian future. But they quickly bump into very thorny questions in current practical politics – which in some ways go straight to the heart of Canada’s longstanding nation-building dilemmas. Alberta Senate reformers (and those elsewhere for that matter) have as yet not been prepared to wade into this swamp of troublesome realism. It is always easier to live in the world as you would like it to be than in the world as it is. And besides, full-scale Canadian Senate reform in this mode would take constitutional amendments, for which the country still seems to lack any serious appetite – since the abject failure of the last such round of tilting at windmills in the early 1990s.

What Prime Minister Harper promised Alberta and other Senate reformers in the election campaign that has just brought him to office by such a slender whisker is a much more “piecemeal” beginning to some version of full-scale Senate reform down the road. He is prepared to use his current prime-ministerial power to appoint members of the current unreformed Canadian Senate who have at least been elected by the democratic people in provincial or other elections. Alberta has already had provincial Senate elections of this sort (and former Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney even appointed one of the victors of these elections to the Senate – just as Prime Minister Harper is promising to do now). Premier Klein of Alberta has recently announced that “Prime Minister Stephen Harper will” be “discussing the possibility” of further senatorial elections of this sort “with the provinces this fall.”

As Ontario Senate reformers might be inclined to see things, at least, the most positive and constructive spin you can put on Premier McGunity’s latest remarks in this context is more or less as follows: If all the Alberta Senate reformers have in mind for some ultimate version of full-scale Senate reform down the road is still the so-called Triple E or US-Australia model of the 1980s, then we might just as well abolish the Senate right now, and forget about any piecemeal Senate election reforms. Because it is clearer than ever than the only practical consequence of trying to force equal provincial representation on a country that is not quite suited to it will be the destruction of the present confederation. Or something like that. If Senate reformers in all parts of the country are really serious about their cause, they better start getting down to the hard political work of coming up with a vision of long-term, full-scale reform that works for Canada’s unique circumstances as they actually are, down on the ground – and not as they would be if Canada were a more exact match for the United States and Australia.

Of course, it would be nice if Premier McGuinty had in fact said something like this, instead of the rather less sensitive and forward-looking things he did say. But then remember again: Senate reform itself was not the real subject he was trying to talk about. And here it seems potentially intriguing as well that Premier McGuinty has been making some very friendly noises lately about Premier Jean Charest in Quebec. Just abolishing the present Senate altogether has been an approach to Senate reform that various voices in Quebec have praised in the past. And as even Ted Byfield from Alberta has discovered over the last several weeks, Ontario and Quebec together are still “where five-eighths of the Canadian population live.” Or, to put perhaps too fine a point on it all, the “West is in” cannot really mean that Alberta is just going to conquer Ontario and Quebec at last – and burn the long-despised Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto triangle to the ground. The new Canada will inevitably continue to have a lot of the old Canada in it too, no matter how long Stephen Harper may or may not manage to remain prime minister. (Or how many former Mike Harris ministers from Ontario are in his cabinet.)

Randall White is the author of a number of books, including Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History, Voice of Region: The Long Journey to Senate Reform in Canada, and Ontario Since 1985. He and Australian commentator Greg Barns have recently published an article on Canadian Senate reform in the Toronto Star.

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