Senate reform a bad idea for Western Canada
Solutions are the chief cause of problems
June 12, 2012
OTTAWA, ON, Jun 12, 2012/ Troy Media/ – It has been 32 years since Pierre Trudeau’s infamous National Energy Program. Yet the evil that men do lives after them, often in unexpected and surprising forms like, say, Senate reform.
The NEP, which brought to a crashing halt an unprecedented energy boom in Alberta, cemented the alienation of western voters from the Liberal Party. But the Liberals believed they had a political winner. The votes were in central Canada, and Trudeau sought to buy their political support with cheap energy strong-armed from the west.
Westerners saw themselves as political losers
A little understood result, however, was a settled conviction in Alberta, and the west more generally, that they could never win the political argument in Ottawa. The deck was simply too heavily stacked against them. To the injury of the NEP was added the insult of Quebec’s perennial dominance, the long gun registry, EI abuse, deficit financing and the seeming immortality of the Canadian Wheat Board, to pick a few key irritants.
In other words, westerners were, and were seen to be, political losers. Their ideas just never seemed to carry the day.
Losers at politics almost invariably seek solace in gimmicky institutional reform. Since we can’t win under the current rules, runs this refrain, there must be something wrong with those rules.
And so arose the great myth of Senate reform. The west craved a new institution so powerful, and yet somehow immune to the politics of the Liberal Party and the Quebec-Ontario axis, that through it the western tail could wag the Canadian dog.
Let me, in the nicest possible way, point out that the two premises on which the West’s Senate reform arguments are based are wrong. And not just a little wrong. They are spectacularly pyrotechnically wrong.
Let’s take the premise that the west is a political loser.
Surely this is now self-evidently nonsense. All those things that so irked Reformers, that led them to storm the Ottawa barricades, demanding that their region be admitted to the country, those things by and large no longer exist. The long gun registry? Gone. Quebec’s predominance? Gone. The Wheat Board? Gone. Deficit financing? Almost gone again. EI abuse? Going. The NEP? Long, long, long gone and judging by the reaction to Thomas Mulcair’s musings about Dutch disease, the oaken stake in its heart is there to stay.
Even the Liberal Party, the architect of so much that alienated the west, lies broken and bleeding, a mere shadow of the party that bestrode this country for a century.
The intellectual momentum behind the Conservative government comes more from Alberta than any other province. The prime minister is a former Reformer and represents a Calgary riding. In the recent Alberta election the party that revived talk of hunkering down behind defensive firewalls to keep out Ottawa’s corrupting influence was handily defeated by a party eagerly engaged in spreading Alberta’s influence across the country and internationally.
Yet the old loser’s reflex is hard to shake. A puerile commitment to an ill-conceived Senate reform continues to disfigure the west’s otherwise maturing Conservatism, like those tattoos that seemed so cool when you were 15 but you now try in vain to hide from your own teenagers.
Not that I mean to imply that Alberta will now and forever more get its own way. Sometimes it will win its point, and sometimes not. The point is different: the politically mature understand that you win some and you lose some, and a long losing streak is not a reason to change the rules; it is a reason to up your game.
Now what about this premise that Senate reform could ever be the instrument by which a defensive Alberta could defeat the clear political wishes of the rest of the country?
Au contraire. A little simple math should be sufficient to dispel this idea. For example, a EEE Senate (equal, elected, effective), or even a reformed Senate that left the current distribution of seat untouched, would entrench a permanent majority composed of equalization-receiving provinces in a newly powerful institution. Reform would permanently empower the transfer-seekers Albertans have always excoriated, while condemning the west to permanent minority status at precisely the moment when its population growth and economic dynamism are giving it unprecedented political weight.
A Big, but Bad, idea
What was the reason given by New Brunswick Premier David Alward the other day for bringing forward legislation authorizing Senate elections in his province? Electing senators will strengthen New Brunswick’s voice in Ottawa where the province is being increasingly overshadowed by the burgeoning Central and Western Canadian provinces. QED.
Ironically Alberta’s big idea, Senate reform, would be a tragic mistake from conservatism’s point of view, and one that Albertans would come bitterly to regret. This is just another instance of an important but sadly neglected maxim: solutions are the chief cause of problems.
Brian Lee Crowley is the Managing Director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: www.macdonaldlaurier.ca.
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