By Brian Lee Crowley
Columnist Lorne Gunter and the National Post editorial board are making a valiant effort to resuscitate Triple E Senate reform in the face of Jack Layton’s revival of the NDP’s traditional policy of simple abolition. None of them has the right answer.
So what’s all the fuss about Senate reform? Twenty-five years ago, the last-but-one natural resource boom in Alberta was brought to a crashing halt by Ottawa’s ham-fisted National Energy Program. The result was a firestorm of western alienation and anger. Despairing of being able to influence Liberal policies, the West rallied first to Brian Mulroney’s Tories and later to the Reform Party. In addition, Alberta became a hotbed of schemes to tinker with Canada’s political structure with the objective of making future NEPs impossible. The Triple-E Senate (equal, elected, effective) was the best known.
But, ironically, Senate reform putting all the provinces on an equal footing would today give extra power, not to the New West, but to the Old East. In a EEE Senate, for example, equalization-receiving provinces would hold a strong majority, making serious reform even less likely and creating a new parliamentary power base arguing for transfers from an increasingly wealthy West. That is the opposite of why Alberta became Senate reform’s great champion.
In any case, Alberta and the West now have an ally they did not have back in the NEP days: Washington. The Americans are thrilled to have such massive energy resources on their doorstep and would adamantly oppose any policy that might put a damper on their development.
Senate reform is chiefly in the interests of small provinces, not large ones. BC figured this out long ago, joining Ontario and Quebec in the ranks of the sceptics. Alberta is now a big province economically and demographically with growing political clout, as Calgarian Stephen Harper demonstrates. Quebec wants no part of equality with tiny provinces in a powerful elected body, but can be wooed by respecting the federal-provincial division of powers, reining in Ottawa’s recent enthusiasm for dabbling in areas of provincial jurisdiction. That suits Alberta and BC too. And we already have a perfectly respectable Canadian-grown institution whose members are elected and where provinces are equal and effective. It is called first ministers meetings.
Senate reform is a second-best strategy for people who think they can’t win political power. Alberta and the West are now political winners, not losers. Moreover, if you are a government whose main power base is in the West, why take on something as politically unpopular and uncertain of success as constitutional reform when a reformed Senate would make your own life hell if you are in government in Ottawa? And if you elect Senators without amending the constitution, as the current government is so unwisely doing, you leave in place the huge imbalance in numbers of Senators among the provinces, the Senate’s theoretically huge legislative power, and lifetime tenure for Senators (which, pace Mr. Harper, it is not clear Ottawa can change without provincial consent).
That would be the worst of all possible worlds: a powerful Senate with little responsibility and no accountability, since both of those things flow, not from your first election, but your second, when you can be held to account for your use of power. An elected Senate in these circumstances would be on under the one man, one vote, one time rule. Since senators would be chosen until age 75 by a one-time election, there would be no accountability and no responsibility, but the Senate would kid itself that it had a democratic mandate equal to that of the Commons. It would be disastrous. The constitutional battle royal that would be unleashed by any attempt to follow Jack Layton’s plan would be equally unappetising and almost certain to fail.
Would a Triple E Senate be an improvement over what we’ve got? Undoubtedly. Can we get there from here? I don’t see how. Given the obstacles to success, is it a rational issue on which to lavish scarce national political capital and attention? No. Time to move on.