To the surprise of everyone in the Ottawa bubble, Her Majesty’s Minister of State for Democratic Reform, Pierre Poilievre, held a press availability Wednesday not to slam the Liberals for some alleged sins, but to actually speak to an issue of policy substance: the government’s Supreme Court reference on Senate reform.
The minister discussed the factum the government has presented to the court outlining its position, marking the first time the words “Pierre Poilievre” and “factum” have appeared in the same sentence. The government has put several questions to the court, essentially seeking clarity around what reforms Parliament can make on its own, what reforms would require provincial approval, and what level of provincial approval would be required for outright abolition, ie. unanimity, or seven provinces with half the population.
The Harper government’s position is that it can proceed unilaterally on Senate reform. I’m not a legal expert, but most of those I’ve seen weigh-in say, while it can proceed unilaterally in some ways, substantive reform does mean constitutional reform. And while the feds can make some changes to areas of sole federal interest on its own, substantive reforms would likely go beyond that.
But I’ll let the legal experts, and of course the Supreme Court, hash that one out. There’s what’s legal, and what’s right. And even if the courts said the feds could substantively reform or even abolish the Senate without the provinces, I’d argue they lack the moral authority to do so and would be making a mistake if they tried.
I’ve written extensively on the Senate in the past. Most recently I’ve argued what I’d like the Senate to be – an upper chamber with equal representation by province or region with clearly defined powers, to serve as a regional counter-weight to what should be a purely representation by population lower chamber in the House of Commons. With uneven population growth across the country, I think that’s an important piece to have in our parliament. The provinces have an undeniable interest in ensuring regional voices are heard and represented fairly in parliament; it’s difficult to argue this is purely a federal matter.
However, I would go beyond just requiring provincial approval through the amending formula for substantive Senate reform or unanimity for abolition. The people must be involved too. When Stephen Harper first came to Ottawa as a staffer and later a Reform MP in 1993, he was a leader in a party that believed in consulting the people on such matters via referendum. It’s time he returned to his roots.
And then we should vote in a national referendum, and the federal and provincial governments should proceed as the people direct.