Harmonizing Canadian Governance, With or Without a Reformed Senate

Harmonizing Canadian Governance, With or Without a Reformed Senate
Posted on August 4, 2015 | Elizabeth May | Written on July 28, 2015

Author's Note:

Author's Note:

By Elizabeth May and Deborah Coyne

Canada is a federation with certain powers given to the federal government and others given to the provinces and territories. The Fathers of Confederation may have imagined peaceful coexistence and even harmonious cooperation among these partners as we built our nation, but the relationship that has evolved more often runs to finger-pointing and stalemates, punctuated by the occasional backroom deal.  In addition, we have spectacularly failed to develop a constructive partnership with Indigenous peoples, who continue to live in shameful conditions that are utterly unacceptable in a 21st-century Canada.

In the 20th-century, the First Ministers’ Conferences emerged to allow formal meetings between the Prime Minister, the provincial Premiers, and the territorial leaders. In 2003, the provinces and territories created the Council of the Federation to form a united front in their negotiations with Ottawa. Yet this has not helped to consolidate their positions, nor has it advanced the national interest.

The provinces and territories have widely varying interests and legitimate concerns that deserve respect. However, now municipal governments and the overdue expansion of a new Indigenous order of government are increasing in significance and also drawing more and more public attention.

How can we modernize our federal structure to alleviate these intergovernmental tensions and serve Canadians more efficiently? Some think that the Senate could play a role in this capacity. After all, at Confederation the Senate was created explicitly as a non-elected body to represent regional concerns, as well as to provide “sober second thought” on the decisions of the House of Commons.

The Green Party believes that this is not the answer. While some Senate committees perform valuable work, the Senate has become a hyper-partisan body contributing little to addressing regional tensions or supporting good national governance. For one thing, the western provinces are seriously underrepresented in it. Furthermore, as an appointed body, the Senate unquestionably lacks the democratic legitimacy so essential to good government. In the wake of the recent expense scandals, the vast majority of Canadians now agree that the reform or abolition of the Canadian Senate is overdue. Throughout the democratic world, appointed upper houses have been made elective or shuffled off to the side of the political stage.

Mr. Harper’s recent unilateral announcement of a moratorium on the appointment of senators is most certainly not the way forward. The moratorium is unconstitutional.  Together with the abdication of any initiative for Senate reform to the provinces, the Prime Minister has demonstrated yet again that he governs only to improve his election prospects, in complete disregard of the Constitution, the national interest, and the people.

Throughout almost a decade in power complaining about the Senate, the Harper government has shrunk from undertaking the necessary constitutional reform and resorted to unconstitutional tinkering and partisan appointments that simply exacerbated the Senate’s decline.  And now, only when the scandals threaten to engulf his own government, the Prime Minister simply announces that he will pick up his marbles and leave the sandbox.

The Green Party agrees with Canadians that the existing Senate cannot continue in its present form. For some time now the legitimacy of the Senate has been seriously undermined, and its constitutional role to represent regional and provincial interests abandoned. The Senate must be reformed during the next Parliament.

The real way forward is for Parliament to appoint a non-partisan commission of informed Canadians tasked with holding hearings across the country to listen to Canadians, explain the issues at stake, and discuss possible options for reform.  The commission would be mandated to – within a reasonable time-frame – come up with a serious constitutional reform proposal that involves a Senate, however elected or independently selected, with a new distribution of seats and new powers.

The constitutional proposal should then be put to the people for approval in a national referendum with two options: Which do you favour: the reform proposal or abolition?  There would be no option for the status quo.

A national consultative referendum, or a combination of nationally- and provincially-held referenda on the same question, could be held, the results of which would dictate how each of the provincial legislatures would vote for the purposes of fulfilling the requirements of the current constitutional amending formula. (This is similar to the Charlottetown Referendum which was held pursuant to existing federal referendum legislation except in Quebec, which ran its referendum under provincial legislation, and Alberta and British Columbia which permitted their provincial referenda to be overseen by Elections Canada.)

While a referendum is not constitutionally required, an important precedent was set with the holding of the Charlottetown Referendum of 1992. In this connection, the Green Party believes that sooner rather than later Canadians must formally revise the constitutional amending formula to add an official referendum mechanism in order to ensure that the people of Canada approve of all amendments to the Constitution. The Constitution belongs to the people of Canada. The people are sovereign, not governments or First Ministers.  The existing formula, which requires votes in provincial legislatures and Parliament instead of a country-wide popular consultation, is utterly anachronistic in 2015.

In addition, nothing in the Constitution says that we have to have constitutional reform proposals covering multiple topics.  As the Charlottetown Referendum also definitively demonstrated, it is confusing to undertake multiple constitutional reforms at the same time and in the same document. The constitutional reform process too easily descends into an unprincipled free-for-all among provincial premiers demanding more and more powers. Linking different reforms in one document can be unprincipled and deprive people of a chance to decide each on its own merits.

Senate reform provides an opportunity for us to finally cement constitutional change as principally an affair of citizens, not simply an ordinary set of federal-provincial negotiations.

In the meantime, we urgently need to take action to get all governments and Canadians working together again.

The Green Party is the only party calling for an immediate modernization of the Canadian federation, with or without a reformed Senate, with the creation of an administrative body called the Council of Canadian Governments. Chaired by the Prime Minister, the Council would include provincial Premiers, territorial leaders, representatives of the municipal order of government, and representatives of Indigenous leadership. The Council would not be a formal part of the legislative process, nor would it have any governmental powers or constitutional status; instead, it would supplement First Ministers’ Conferences. The Council’s role would be to initiate, develop, and monitor the implementation of policy reforms that are of national significance and require action by all Canadian governments. (See “Governments can get along and get things done.”)

Establishing a Council of Canadian Governments would promote a more collegial and collaborative federalism while acknowledging the 21st-century reality that most issues of concern to Canadians inevitably involve more than one level of government. A similar council in Australia since 1992 is generally well accepted and has enabled Australia to eliminate much of the inter-jurisdictional wrangling with which Canadians are so familiar.

The Green Party wants to deliver the government Canadians deserve in the 21st century. We believe in a Canada ‎that works – together.

About The Author

Elizabeth May's picture

Elizabeth May is an environmentalist, writer, activist, lawyer, and the former leader of the Green Party of Canada. Elizabeth became active in the environmental movement in the 1970s. She is a graduate of Dalhousie... More