National Column: Can Canada come together on Senate reform?

When it comes to Senate reform, the question is not whether an overwhelming majority of Canadians believe transformational change of some sort is desirable. That’s a given.

A fair number of voters would even be willing to overcome their collective constitutional phobia to drag the upper house into the 21st century.

Notwithstanding the partisan noise about outright abolition versus fixing the Senate’s glaring democratic deficit, a federal-provincial consensus on the way forward could probably be achieved.

Many Senate abolitionists would likely settle for a major overhaul of the institution if the unanimous provincial support required to dispose of the upper house turned out to be as unattainable as most political analysts predict. (The support threshold for most reforms is lower than for abolition.)

But the real question is whether Quebecers are concerned enough about the state of the Senate to set aside their long-standing constitutional grievances to redress it.

Or, alternatively, are voters in the rest of Canada eager enough to reform the Senate to agree to some prior heavy constitutional lifting on the Quebec front?

There is little mystery as to the answer to the first question. In a speech to the Ontario legislature last month, Premier Philippe Couillard spoke about his wish to see Quebec’s distinctiveness enshrined in the Constitution.

If invited to the constitutional table to discuss the Senate, he will show up with that demand in his back pocket. It will not remain there.

On this, the premier is on solid ground. There is not, in Quebec, much of a constituency for putting Senate reform ahead of the constitutional recognition the province has pursued in vain for more than two decades.

Couillard is also unequivocally opposed to the abolition of the Senate. He believes its core mission of giving Canada’s regions a voice in Parliament is more relevant than ever. In his view, closing down the Senate would dilute Quebec’s voice in the federation. Other premiers – including Ontario’s – also see more merit to reforming the upper house than to abolishing it.

There are those who assume that Couillard’s anti-abolition stance is a stunt, a chip to be traded at the negotiating table for the constitutional recognition of Quebec’s distinctiveness. No one should gamble on that.

Here again the premier’s position reflects a consensus within Quebec’s chattering class that crosses party lines.

Were Couillard to pit his stance against the abolition option in a referendum, the odds are he would prevail. What is certain is that he would not lack for allies to back his side.

Talking about a referendum, there has not been a federal plebiscite held on Quebec soil since the Second World War and the conscription crisis. To this day it remains such a politically sensitive notion that the 1992 Charlottetown Accord referendum – even as it is overseen by the federal government everywhere else – was held under Quebec authority in that province.

To sum up: A Senate constitutional round that takes precedence over Quebec’s quest to have its distinctiveness formally acknowledged by the rest of the country is a non-starter for that province.

On that basis, it would seem that job one for a prime minister committed to putting the Senate on the constitutional table would be to seek the required provincial support to meet the key Quebec demand. (A minimum of seven provinces, including either Quebec or Ontario, would probably be required.).

Completing the above mission might remove the Quebec roadblock and pave the way to a federal- provincial consensus on Senate reform but almost certainly not to its abolition.

Finally, in form as in substance, going the route of a federal referendum in the hope of forcing the hand of Quebec’s most federalist government in decades on Senate reform is a prescription for disaster for its proponents.

Given all that, if NDP Leader Tom Mulcair is seriously ready to spend the political capital of a rookie NDP federal government on seeking lasting constitutional peace with Quebec and altruistic enough to undertake that task even as it will bring him no nearer to his stated goal of seeing the Senate abolished, one can only both commend his courage and question his political sanity.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2015 – Torstar Syndication Services

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