Senate reform doomed?
In a responsible world the Supreme Court’s unanimous finding that the Canadian Senate cannot be reformed or abolished without securing enough provincial support to amend the Constitution would not prompt a headlong rush to a national referendum.
Instead it would result in an overdue adult political conversation.
For starters, Canada’s federal and provincial leaders would ask themselves whether they have the political will and the popular backing to reopen the Constitution.
If the answer to that question were a solid yes, the premiers and the prime minister would then have to determine whether they are ready not only to engage in talks on Senate reform but also on Quebec’s long-standing constitutional demands.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard has made it clear that he will not participate in a Senate round in the absence of a Quebec side agenda.
On that score, he can expect to have the backing of the other parties in the national assembly.
If the other partners in the federation were agreeable to Quebec’s condition they would also presumably have to be confident that the odds of success on matters such as the recognition of the province’s distinct character are extremely high.
Canada has just spent two decades wading out of the debris of the constitutional failures of the early 19 90s. Surely no one in Parliament or in the provincial capitals wants a role in a replay of that movie.
In theory it is not essential for Quebec to be at the table for the rest of Canada to discuss or agree on Senate reform.
According to the Supreme Court, it is possible for the federal government to make substantial changes to the upper house with the consent of only seven provinces that add up to 50 per cent of Canada’s population.
But under a federal law passed under Jean Chrétien, Quebec’s agreement — along with that of the other regions of the country — is a prerequisite to the adoption by the House of Commons of a constitutional amendment.
Besides, would any of the current federal leaders entertain rewriting another chapter of the Constitution without Quebec?
The last time that happened in 1981, Canada’s political class argued that it could never have come to terms with a sovereigntist government. But with federalists in power in Quebec for the foreseeable future that potential argument is moot.
NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair has tended to be the least averse to another discussion of Quebec’s constitutional agenda. But even under the unlikely scenario of a dual Quebec-Senate round, it would likely not take long for abolition — the NDP’s long-held goal — to be off the table.
According to the Supreme Court, doing away with the upper house requires the agreement of every single province.
Ontario — under its current government — does not support abolishing the Senate; nor does Quebec, to name just those two.
Given all of the above, some proponents of a national referendum argue that putting the issue to the people is the only way to break the deadlock.
In their minds a clear expression of populist will to abolish or reform the Senate would force the hand of reluctant premiers.
But how realistic is that?
Would the voters of Prince Edward Island, for example, actually push their premiers to enter into a negotiation that would see their voice within Canada’s national institutions diminished?
Under either the scenario of a redistribution of the Senate along the demographical lines of modern Canada or that of its abolition, Atlantic Canada would see its proportional weight in Parliament go down.
And in a federal referendum that could pit the entire Quebec national assembly against any combination of federal politicians, what are the odds that Quebecers would take their lead from the latter?
Almost a decade ago, Stephen Harper presented Canadians with what always had the makings of a false shortcut to Senate reform.
In the matter of the Senate, all roads lead to the constitutional table.
For that very reason, going down the referendum path in the current circumstances would be just another detour, albeit an even more divisive one, to the same dead end.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.