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Ways of fixing up the upper chamber

Globe and Mail Update

Three years after the adoption of Canada's constitutional amending formula, and while the courts continue to reinterpret statutes and usages in the light of the Charter of Rights, it is time we thought of reforming some of our federal political institutions.

The most obvious, perennial, and hackneyed candidate for review is the Senate, surely as varied a catchment for improbable lawmakers as any legislature in the civilized world. It is an injustice to many capable senators, and a regrettable thing for the government itself, to have our proverbial upper house in such low repute.

The shortcomings of the Senate have been emphasized by the imbalance of our federal party system. from the aftermath of the First World War until last year, the federal Conservatives were, as Liberal cabinet minister Jack Pickersgill used to say, "like the mumps; you get them once in your life."

The real opposition to the federal Liberal government came from the premiers of Quebec, Ontario and, to some degree, Alberta. Louis Taschereau, George Ferguson, Maurice Duplessis, Mitchell Hepburn, George Drew, Leslie frost, Jean Lesage, Daniel Johnson, John Robarts, Ernest Manning, Rene Levesque and Peter Lougheed were more effective and credible counterweights to the federal (usually Liberal) governments than the leaders of the official federal opposition whose names were household words. They included William Bennett, Robert Manion, Richard Hanson, John Bracken, Drew (who had less influence in this role than as premier of Ontario), the early Lester Pearson, the later John Diefenbaker, Robert Stanfield and Joe Clark. Currently, the usual roles are reversed.

The federal Conservatives deploy a huge parliamentary majority--and are turning Quebec into a fortress--and Liberal provincial premiers, who have been extinct for six years, are re- emerging in Ontario, probably Quebec, and perhaps New Brunswick. But there is still no reason to believe that the focus of effective opposition to the federal government will necessarily reside on the other side of the parliamentary aisle. This unique constitutional framework of counterbalancing the central authority from other echelons of government is the inevitable source of great jurisdictional friction, and is apt to remain so despite Mr. Mulroney's emollient disposition and evident diplomatic skills.

The potential of the Senate for alleviating regional under-representation in Ottawa has often been mentioned. That might in itself be useful; the presence in Ottawa of some Quebec ultra-nationalists, prairie radicals, militant Newfoundlanders and authentic B.C. Socreds would be enlivening, and possibly even informative. However, such a development would not exhaust the possibilities for Senate reform. A regional component of perhaps 40 to 60 senators, elected on some proportional vote basis, would lift the opprobrium of appointiveness and enhance the prestige of that chamber sufficiently to allow important government portfolios to be held there, if the Senate were appropriately populated. To this end, it would be useful to add another new component to its membership through the appointment of a certain number of senators, perhaps 20, for the life of parliament only, though for renewable terms. By that means, such distinguished victims of the vagaries of constituency politics as Vincent Massey (1925), General A. G. L. McNaughton (1945), Roland Michener (1962), Maurice Sauve (1968), Pierre Juneau (1975), John Evans (1978), and Lawrence Hanigan (1984), could have served and rendered inestimable service as cabinet ministers.

Initially, anyone in Canada, sought out by the prime minister to occupy an important ministry for a limited period, could arrange a leave of absence from habitual occupation and would not be denied to public service because of an absence of aptitude for the political arts, a novelty that would probably arouse the gratitude of most electors. In this way, we would, by an original method, approach the flexibility available under the U.S. and British systems to bring the most talented citizens into government without miring them in partisanship or subverting democracy.

The presidential appointment of cabinet members has endowed the United States with an endless sequence of excellent statesmen who never would have been tempted to surmount electoral hurdles to enter public life, from General George Marshall to John Gardner to Henry Kissinger and George Shultz. In Great Britain, it has been well-settled custom throughout this century (Salisbury was the last prime minister to govern from the House of Lords) that any positions except prime minister and chancellor of the exchequer may be held in the upper house. Lord Carrington's and Lord Home's tenures as foreign secretary are obvious recent illustrations. By limiting the federal government almost entirely to the survivors of our quadrennial scrum in 282 constituencies, we constrain in advance the resources available to the almost impossible task of governing Canada, for no evident purpose. I would not recommend giving the Senate more than the power of one year's delay in enactment of House of Commons legislation, and less power even than that in some cases, such as supply.

What is at issue here is not a diminution of democracy, but a qualitative addition to the personnel available to help it function better.

The balance of senators would remain the present rump of life appointees to age 75, though with the regional-elected and short-term-appointed contingents, governments of the future might be motivated to avoid duplicating some of the egregious nominations of the past. While we are fixing up the Senate, we should think also of the anomalous post of governor-general, who is chief of state except during the physical presence in this country of the sovereign, i.e., about a week every three or four years.

While virtually all of the occupants of this position have been people of high diligence and distinction, (and the incumbent certainly is), I question whether the post of the chief of state should be the senior patronage position within the gift of a full-term prime minister, and whether the chief of state should really hold office in the name and place of an extra-territorial monarchy. Rather, I tentatively suggest that all Canadian citizens who wish also to be British subjects should be free to make such an additional election (as was automatic until a few years ago); that the monarch's status as head of the Commonwealth and sovereign of British subjects in Canada be reaffirmed; and that the chief of state be elected president of a Republic of Canada by direct popular election to a five-or six year term and then, in addition, nominated for a concurrent term as Governor-General of the Realm of Canada, composed of the British subjects in Canada. By some such method as this, the republicans would have nothing foisted upon them, the monarchists would be deprived of nothing, constitutional innovation would be enacted without a reckless assault on the past. Anachronisms would be addressed; traditions preserved. Constitutional reform has rarely been a burning issue in Canada. I think in particular of the ill-favored leader of the CCF of Nova Scotia about 25 years ago, Michael James McDonald, who led his party to near obliteration on a platform of creating a permanent speakership. Those should not be partisan issues and certainly are no substitute for consideration of other public questions of more obvious immediacy, but there is no reason why we should not, now that we can do so within Canada, adapt our political institutions to the people that we are and the times which we know.

In my column on arms control in the June issue, I wrote that the feasibility of Washington's proposed space-based anti-missile system "has now resolved itself into a conventional discussion of cost effectiveness." A typographical error altered that to "has not resolved itself." As well, after listing some desirable advances in arms control, I wrote that "there is no reason to doubt that American perseverance will result in a satisfactory variant of one of these results." In editing, that was changed to "U.S. perseverance no doubt will lead to a satisfactory variant of one of those results"--giving the statement a rather glibly hopeful tone that I did not intend.

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