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The Real Senate Reform That Will Never Be

05/31/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 07/31/2013 05:12 EDT
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The casual tribalism emanating from all sides these days on reforming the most egregiously useless of Canadian institutions -- the Senate -- reinforces what all in Ottawa really know: nothing will actually happen.

Why? Because any serious attempt to do so will fall victim to political and regional fault lines already being scraped bare, as Liberal leader Justin Trudeau is finding out.

It's not what the Senate is but what it could be that animates this debate.

Canadians caught a glimpse of what it "could be" in the 1992 Charlottetown Accord; the closest we have come to real Senate reform since Confederation. It was to be elected, equal, and certainly more effective than today.

The prime minister who wrought this was Brian Mulroney.

But even he was surprised. I know, because I was the one who informed him an elected Senate might just happen.

We were in Munich for a G7 economic summit in early July and, we thought, safely five time zones away from Constitutional Affairs minister Joe Clark's late evening negotiating session with provinces and territories, minus Robert Bourassa of Quebec who remained strategically "opted-out" from the process. An equal Senate with all provinces having the same number of seats was both a big demand from western premiers and would be a big give from Ontario and Quebec.

No one expected Mr. Clark to get a deal; not Mr. Mulroney in Germany and no one from PMO monitoring the so-called Pearson Building talks in Ottawa. A failure to connect Mr. Mulroney and Mr. Clark by telephone the day before and clarify outcomes now reared itself. Ontario premier Bob Rae declared his support for an equal Senate during the meeting and Mr. Clark seized the commitment. A Senate deal, without Quebec, was struck.

A few hours later, groggy from no sleep, and after waiting an interminable time for the rolling fax sheets to come in from Ottawa with the details, I was tasked with briefing the PM in his hotel suite. Me in a suit and Mr. Mulroney is his bathrobe made for an unusual constitutional conversation. After a brisk accounting of the details and some very focused questions on his part, I was given the command: "Get me Segal," then chief of staff, now Senator Hugh Segal. Looking at the secure phone on the coffee table in front of us both, my first thought, thankfully not uttered, was "The phone's right there. Just pick it up." I reached for the receiver instead.

A few minutes later the PMO switchboard tracked down Hugh in the dead of the Ottawa night for an equally brisk and occasionally brusque conversation. The PM knew instinctively the political isolation this could engender in Quebec that would unravel the rest of the Senate package. Flying back from Munich later that day, Mr. Mulroney spent an inordinate amount of time in the plane's cockpit working the radio telephone gathering information and trying to listen to Premier Bourassa's news conference reaction in real time.

Deft political handling saved this day and premiers were eventually invited to participate in two direct First Ministers Meetings later that summer to negotiate a final Senate reform package as part of the eventual August Charlottetown Accord.

If not fully Triple E, it was certainly close to it. All Senators would be elected -- by provinces at the same time as federal elections; and all provinces would have an equal amount of Senators -- six. It would also be more effective in practice than any Senate before or since with the ability to defeat government legislation (but not as a confidence vote), a 30-day suspensive veto over budget or supply legislation, and an absolute veto over fundamental tax policy changes directly related to natural resources, showing its core regional representation power as the provinces' house.

It was all for naught as Canadians voted it down in a cross-country referendum on the Charlottetown constitutional package.

Twenty years on, no one need worry about this coming true anytime soon, as no serious reform proposal is actually on offer from any of the parties. Abolition from the NDP is anti-confederation and wouldn't pass muster. Term limits and provincially-administered Senate elections from the Conservatives is a slow-walk to legitimacy and does nothing about an equal or effective Senate. Simply appointing 'better' Senators by the Liberals earns them an 'E' for 'effort' only. Not much here.

Despite the brave talk, today's political leaders are all spooked by what it would really take to reform the Senate. Real reform requires constitutional consent. And this is one can of worms no one dares to open.

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