Seamanship Quotation

“In political activity, then, men sail a boundless and bottomless sea; there is neither harbour for shelter nor floor for anchorage, neither starting-place nor appointed destination.”
— from Michael Oakeshott's
Political Education” (1951)

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Killing Harper’s Senate Reform (Part 2: hope and chemistry)

Harper has not responded as "nation-builders" are supposed to when their initiatives to make constitutional history are destroyed by the Supreme Court or in earlier times by provincial governments. Nation-builders are expected to pick themselves up and do something. For instance, with a touch of remorse and patriotic urgency, convene a televised First Ministers Conference to reignite the process.

Instead, with unnerving clarity, Harper observed that with the authority of the provinces in reforming the Senate now established (and that, in effect, he had no business acting on his own), it is now up to the provinces to decide what they want to do: reform it, abolish it, or simply leave as is — as a federal (not a provincial) embarrassment.

This "I’ve-got-more-practical-and-popular-things-to-do" response has annoyed statesman-like politicians like Bob Rae and infuriated statesman-chasing journalists like Andrew Cohen who insist that worthy PMs keep leading, just more humbly and more nicely.

Myth has it that the great ones make nice.

This is pure spin. It serves the "personal chemistry" school of literary nonfiction and the industry around such pseudo-new events as Question Period and First Ministers conferences. It’s a school of commentary that kicks sour losers on the way down and panders to winner on the way up.

Core Liberals and core Conservatives, I’m sure, would cringe at the suggestion that the harmonization of Ontario and Canada’s sales taxes (the HST) was pulled off because Stephen Harper and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty had "personal chemistry." The notion, as well, that Harper and Barack Obama could work as brothers on the nationalization of GM and Chrysler and can’t now on the Keystone XL pipeline because their relationship has gone south is again spin.

Political circumstances pull leaders together and political circumstances pull them apart.

Harper’s inclination to leave the next move to the provinces, in fact, could lead to an elected Senate — if an influential number of Canadians would support reformers and punish reactionaries. The trigger for constitutional reform needn’t only be a Prime Minister in Ottawa trying to honor an election promise of years gone by. The premier of a powerful province, for instance, could break the ice.

There is a glorious precedent.

Pierre Trudeau’s success finally in Canadianizing and amending the British North American Act didn’t depend on his expertise, his creativity, his energy, or his charm. The camera loved Pierre Trudeau — but other politicians didn’t and wouldn’t have lifted a finger merely to inflate his name in Canada’s history books.

Nevertheless, circumstances then were compelling — inviting. A solemn promise by all federalist parties and governments to reform the Canadian constitution had been made to Quebecers in the midst of an independence referendum. And the Premier of Ontario William Davis, in the fall of 1979, publicly and formally threw his support behind both the unilateral patriation of the constitution and an entrenched charter of rights and freedoms.

To put it crudely, the careful Progressive Conservative premier of half of English-speaking Canadian voters offered a Liberal Prime Minister from Quebec a bullet and a rose: an invitation to act unilaterally without the unanimous consent of the provinces (if the next round of constitutional conferences ended in deadlock) and a seconder for a rights charter in order to mobilize public support.

Rather than waiting for a lovable PM, there is a scenario today for putting our old one back to work.  

If, after Ontario’s election, the Premier of Ontario were to join Alberta and off-again, on-again Saskatchewan and British Columbia in formally endorsing a constitutional amendment to elect senators for terms between the 9 to 12 years House of Commons has supported, all of that would be in doubt would be whether the four Atlantic governments or three with Quebec would want to continue learning the name of their next senator by reading a PMO press release.

Would they have the nerve to argue that direct democracy is still a dangerous Yankee idea or that not embracing it now will lead to a sweeter deal off in the future?

All would be quickly revealed and, after the normal intergovernmental discussions that go on constantly right now, Harper could ask for signatures on an agreed joint resolution. (Heh, for the sake of equitable exposure on the National, surely he would agree to host a one-day First Ministers Conference.)

Perfectionists for the status quo, like Justin Trudeau, tell us that this "let’s at least elect them" scenario shouldn’t happen because Alberta and BC’s Senate shares are too small today. Apparently, Alberta’s proposal — and practice — is too generous to the rest of Canada. Before anyone joins Alberta in democratizing the Senate, someone truly stupid must ask Quebec and Atlantic Canada to surrender nearly half their Senate seats.

Two comments. With only six seats, Alberta is the second-biggest loser in the current allocation of Senate seats and still favors nationwide Senate elections as a first step toward a democratic and effective second chamber. The West will keep pressing for further reforms and, also, will still have a credible veto on other suggestions to empower the Senate, if they can’t secure a fair compromise on Senate seats in the future.

(BTW: Americans are not innumerate. Californians and Texans know that voters in Rhode Island and Maine have ten times more weight. Yet neither Texans nor Californians want their two senators appointed by their governors or blue-ribbon committees. Nor are they threatening to leave the Union unless New England is cut back to two US Senate seats, in total.)

Of course, the elected premier of Ontario may demur. No politician uses political capital just to help an unpopular Prime Minister make history. Also, there’s no ennobling national challenge for our middling leaders to rise to — like the weight of an approaching referendum that could shatter the political power of Central Canada, for instance. 

Nevertheless, spreading democracy in Ottawa and, thereby, girding federalism for possible future separatist attacks (from east or west) should be rather popular amongst Ontarians — certainly easier than entrenching French language rights was only a generation ago

The above provincial imitative may be what Harper is wishing for — unless he wants history to record only that he focused “like a laser on balancing the budget.”

Otherwise, if I was him, I’d destroy any chance of any progress by rudely asking the three Ontario candidates for Bill Davis’s job whether they’re prepared to exercise their awesome constitutional power by declaring themselves on this one constitutional question.

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