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Margret Kopala: Senate could become a ‘House of Provinces’

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is painted into a corner on Senate reform.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is painted into a corner on Senate reform.

Between a commitment to the Triple-E model to which, ostensibly, Western Canada is wedded but which appears impossible to implement, and a Supreme Court reference about his proposals for fixed Senate terms, amending elections and property ownership qualifications of senators, or outright abolition, it would appear he has little room to reform the Senate under his current mandate.

Now anomalies regarding housing expenses threaten to discredit at least a few members of the Red Chamber. A minor scandal as scandals go, it has nonetheless poked a stick into the hornets’ nest of public dissatisfaction with how senators are appointed, with what they do and the length of time in which they should be allowed to do it.

Before Harper gives up on Senate reform, he might want to pick up the phone to his newfound political pal and trading partner, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. The German Bundesrat provides some valuable lessons about how an upper house should work. In fact, the Bundesrat is so interesting, various Canadian task forces and conferences on the subject have suggested similar “House of the Provinces” models. Why? Because with refinements, it is workable and addresses many of the issues plaguing Canada’s upper house.

Germany’s Bundestag, like Canada’s House of Commons, is elected by the German people and is the country’s highest legislative authority. Since Germany also has a federal system, its regional governments have important powers and legislative authority. The Bundesrat, Germany’s upper house, is the institution in which they are represented. Unlike Canada’s appointed senators, however, members of the Bundesrat are more like our provincial intergovernmental affairs ministers, who are delegated to represent their regional governments in the Bundesrat. This allows for checks and balances but also for co-operation between the two levels of government, as well as among regional governments.

Germany provides not merely the model for reforming the Senate, but also the reason why such reform is important.

During the Second World War, Germany, along with Japan, endured the ultimate in depreciation of physical and political capital. They retooled and rebuilt in both areas to become powerhouses of the global economy that, even today, and even with Japan’s demographic and financial challenges, provide their citizens with among the highest standards of living in the world.

Modernized economically and politically, both went on to demonstrate how social cohesion, industrial capacity and institutional coherence are vital tools against the growing irrelevance of today’s bankrupt nation-state.

For Canada, whose resource-based economy resides in provincial jurisdiction where separatist tension is ever present, the need to find the institutional model that will similarly strengthen provincial and federal capabilities couldn’t be more pressing.

To achieve this, Harper could resurrect the “emissary” process that successfully merged the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties. With little muss or fuss, senior party statesmen from both sides worked out a deal. Where Senate reform is concerned, and if the Bundesrat model is acceptable, federally and provincially appointed emissaries, say three each with deep knowledge of Canada’s constitutional history, could negotiate seats and powers.

Ratification would then take place in accordance with jurisdictional requirements (some provinces need a referendum, others don’t). Agreement from seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population is needed for a constitutional amendment on Senate reform, so getting this done shouldn’t be impossible.

That Canada’s governments must be prepared to amend the Constitution on an incremental, stand-alone basis is a given. Another given is that the prime minister and everyone else must stand aside from previously held positions and painted corners.


Margret Kopala is an Ottawa-based writer, community activist and public-policy advocate.