National Column: Quebec federalist joins Senate

by Chantal Hébert

Before emerging as one of Quebec’s leading federalist voices, future senator AndrÈ Pratte twice voted yes in the space of 15 years for a Quebec outside the Canadian Federation.

He distanced himself from the sovereignty project after the 1995 referendum and Jacques Parizeau’s controversial remarks about having lost his bid to make Quebec a country to ethnic votes.

But even before that, Pratte was more a soft nationalist than a secessionist.

As a columnist for La Presse in the late 1980s and early ’90s he was a staunch supporter of Brian Mulroney’s two failed attempts at constitutional accommodation for Quebec. Former prime minister
Pierre Trudeau came out of retirement to fight both initiatives.

Over his journalistic career, Pratte has consistently advocated the enshrinement of Quebec’s distinctive character in the Constitution. In that spirit, he supported the adoption, in 2006, of a House of Commons resolution pertaining to Quebec’s national character.

Justin Trudeau was not an MP at the time but he did oppose the move – which he called divisive.

On Pratte’s watch as chief editorialist, La Presse endorsed the Liberals in every provincial election but declined to do the same for the federal Liberals in three of the past four federal campaigns.

Over the same period, Quebec was the scene of a heated debate over the accommodation of religious minorities. It is ongoing. Last fall, that discussion inserted itself in the federal election campaign in the shape of the niqab issue.

Like Trudeau, Pratte vigorously opposed the Parti Quebecois’ plan to impose a secular dress code on public sector workers. But unlike the prime minister, he believes those who dispense and receive public services should be required to do so with their face uncovered.

His budget philosophy is more closely aligned with that of Harper than with the approach taken by Trudeau and Bill Morneau. In past editorials, Pratte has argued the federal government should lower taxes (so as to give the provinces more room to raise revenues if they so need) rather than increase its spending.

Pratte has also been a constant advocate of a return to the constitutional table to deal with Quebec’s place in the federation but also to modernize Canada’s institutions.

If Trudeau was looking to appoint a federalist contrarian from his home province to the Senate, Pratte fits the bill in more ways than one. His political colouring is closer to that of a red Tory in the Mulroney style than to the true red of the federal Liberals. It is also closer to that of Philippe Couillard’s Liberal government.

If one were to put the other six independent senators appointed along with Pratte under a microscope, one would almost certainly find that they, too, disagree with some of the positions of the current government in fundamental ways and that they did not come to those convictions lightly.

They have the intellectual gravitas to bring an independent mindset to their new roles.

By the time the next election comes around, those seven will have been joined by dozens of senators appointed on merit rather than on a partisan basis. The no-label cohort will make up a large enough contingent in the Senate to ensure that there will be no easy return to the party-based system the upper house has traditionally operated under.

But different is not always automatically synonymous with better.

In the late ’80s, the Liberal majority in the Senate forced an election over Mulroney’s free trade deal with the United States. The Liberal-dominated upper house provided a forum for those who opposed the Tory government’s constitutional initiatives. It filibustered the introduction of the GST.

More recently, the Conservative majority in the Senate killed a climate change bill that had been forced on the minority Harper government by the opposition parties in the House of Commons.

All that happened under a system that made party leaders accountable to voters for the behaviour of their unelected representatives in the Senate. Absent the collective recognition on the part of its independent members that a merit-based Senate still lacks the legitimacy of an elected one, the upper house has the potential to become a bigger plague on Canadian voters and their representatives than its previous partisan incarnation.

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

Copyright 2016 – Torstar Syndication Services

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