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  Ontario, Mike Duffy and Senate Reform


By Randall White

According to Phillip Blancher, a commentator from the eastern gateway to Ontario still known as the United Counties of Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry, the Mike Duffy circus has come to town in Ottawa. 

And the “result of the trial, and the fallout from it, will become ‘Exhibit A’ for the cause of reforming the Senate.”

Andrew MacDougall, a former director of communications for Prime Minister Harper, has suggested something similar. 

How ironic it would be, Mr. MacDougall has urged, “if it was the trial of Senator Mike Duffy that became the catalyst to reform Canada’s least defensible public institution.”

The Canadian people would probably support something like this.

According to a recent Angus Reid Institute poll, about 45% of Canadians already want the archaic Canadian Senate — modeled on the 19th century British House of Lords — to be reformed.

Another 41% want to see it abolished, and only 14% think it should be left as is.  

The Supreme Court of Canada has made clear that nothing serious about Senate reform can be done without the involvement of provincial governments.  

Any kind of Senate elections would require the consent of seven provinces representing half the population.

Abolishing the Senate would require the consent of all the provinces — and the Senate itself!    

If the Duffy trial does finally become the catalyst to reform the notorious Red Chamber, it will most likely take the provincial premiers to get the ball seriously rolling.

There is a contrary view, however, which is that the premiers will never agree to serious Senate reform, because an effective, elected, and regionally representative Canadian Senate will only steal their thunder in federal-provincial relations. 

The logical provincial position on the future of Canada’s least defensible public institution is Senate abolition, not Senate reform. Quebec takes the position.

However, at least some of the smaller and/or less populous provinces will also vote against abolishing the Senate. Prince Edward Island is the one of those.

Since 2006, some will argue, the Harper federal government has slowly but surely stolen most of the provincial premiers’ thunder in federal-provincial relations.

The now rather long reign of Stephen Harper in Ottawa may be starting to change minds. 

What kind of view would Ontario bring to the table?  

On one part of this question I find myself disagreeing somewhat with Phillip Blancher from the eastern gateway to Ontario.

He writes: “The Senate of Canada must have equal representation of the provinces and territories. One jurisdiction cannot have an advantage or disadvantage over another when it comes to seats.” 

This is a lot like the E for "equal" provincial representation in the old Triple E Senate reform formula. And it has finally become clear to me that Ontario — with more than 38% of the current Canadian population, and living right next door to Canada’s French language heartland in Quebec — just cannot agree to the strict provincial equality part of the Triple E model.

No doubt, the Senate in the 21st century must be all about equal regional representation in some broader sense.

An obvious example is the four equal Senate regions (24 members each) of Atlantic Canada, Quebec, Ontario, and Western Canada, which prevailed from 1915 to the admission of Newfoundland as a fourth Atlantic province in 1949.

It may also be that equal regional representation in this sense today needs to grow at least a little closer to equal provincial representation.   

But then there is the problem that Quebec has never really been a province like the others. And since late 2006 the Canadian House of Commons has defined the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada. 

Ontario has often been sensitive to the unique aspirations of its ancient Canadian sister province east of the Ottawa River since the first premiers conference at Quebec City in October 1887. 

It may still be too early to discuss the effect of Mike Duffy trial on all this.

But Premier Wynne herself has expressed interest in talking with her fellow premiers about Senate reform. Her aides at Queen's Park will undoubtedly be keeping an eye on any potential reform of this, one of Canada's oldest institutions.  

About Randall White

Randall White is a former senior policy advisor with the Ontario Ministry of Finance, and a former economist with the Ontario Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing. He is the author of Ontario 1610-1985: A Political and Economic History and Ontario Since 1985. He writes frequently about Ontario politics.
Posted date : April 14, 2015

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