© Canadian Press photo
The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled reforming the Senate would require constitutional amendments approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population. Abolishing it altogether would require unanimous consent of all 10 provinces.
Prime Minister Harper’s negotiating style comes back to haunt him
The Supreme Court of Canada has done the proper thing in rejecting plans by the federal government to unilaterally make changes to the Senate. The court ruled Friday that the federal government’s Senate reforms would need constitutional amendments approved by at least seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the country’s population.
In a ruling that looked back to the very roots of government in this country, the court ruled the Senate is a vital key to the political bargain struck at Confederation and therefore is not something that can easily be tinkered with.
“The Senate is one of Canada’s foundational political institutions,” said the court ruling. “It lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation.”
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, long an advocate of Senate reform, is disappointed. He said it’s a decision for the status quo, a status quo that is supported by virtually “no Canadian.” He said there is no consensus among the provinces on either reform or abolition of the Senate, nor is there a desire “among anyone” to reopen the Constitution and have “a bunch of constitutional negotiations.”
On the other side of the political spectrum is P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz who, along with other provinces, opposed the federal government’s unilateral Senate plans. Prince Edward Island’s submission to the court argued Ottawa cannot make changes without the consent of the provinces.
“This is not only good for this decision, but for other decisions … it shows that provinces still do have a say, regardless of their size and that was an important component when we look back to the forming of our nation,” Mr. Ghiz said.
In that regard the premier is absolutely correct. Prince Edward Island was a small but mighty little province when it joined Confederation. Our land mass is now slightly smaller, our population slightly larger and it is increasingly difficult to have our voice heard on the national stage. The Senate helps us in that regard.
The good news is an important Canadian institution remains intact, and that neither it or some other vital national institution can be drastically changed or discarded at the whim of a sitting national government. Of course the flip side is we are left with a Senate that does not live up to the aspirations of the country’s founders. It has become toothless and scandal-ridden.
In creating the Senate, the court said the Fathers of Confederation deliberately chose an appointed chamber, which was supposed to be independent, free of partisanship and able to apply “sober second thought” to legislation without blocking the will of the elected House of Commons.
The prime minister’s detractors will revel in the rebuke handed him by the Supreme Court. To his credit, he at least tried to breathe new life into the Senate, such as proposing term limits and creating what the court called a “consultative election” process. But one wonders how serious Mr. Harper ever was about genuine Senate reform, outside of using it as a punching bag like all Canadians do when they want to say something negative about Ottawa and politics.
In the end, perhaps Mr. Harper’s biggest obstacle to Senate reform is his personality. While he may argue there is no consensus among the provinces on Senate reform, he certainly has not tried to find any. His unwillingness to meet and negotiate with Canadian premiers is the one constant in this prime minister’s tenure. His negotiating style can be summed up in the old saying: “It’s my way or the highway.” Another expression comes to mind: “You reap what you sow.”