I am foursquare in favor of free trade but I couldn’t be happier about John Turner’s strategy to use the Canadian Senate to block passage of the free trade treaty. This is because his dramatic and arrogant move serves two important public policy purposes. First, Turner and his Liberal Senate sidekicks may convince Canadians once and for all that the Senate must go. Never before in Canadian history have so few been in a position to defy so many in favor of so much. But more importantly, this machiavellian move provides an important insight into the character of the man who would be Mackenzie King, Liberal Leader John Turner. He must go, too.
The Senate is an embarrassment in a democratic society. That is why proponents of “Senate-cide” such as myself welcome Turner’s announced attempt to use Senate powers to block a treaty with our largest trading partner. It has never ceased to amaze me and others how long that anachronistic institution has lasted in the first place. Senators make $58,300 a year and get perquisites galore-executive assistants, lavish offices, a $9,300 research allowance and more status than they deserve. After nearly three decades of Liberal rule and subsequent stuffing of the Senate’s ranks by party hacks and bagmen, it has deteriorated into a featherbed for fallen Liberals.
By contrast, our Anglo-Saxon cousins have nothing like it. In the United States and Australia, a fixed number of senators are elected for each state, no matter what the population is. Members of the British House of Lords remain unelected, and their titles are mostly inherited, but at least they are not a drain—they get nothing but a reimbursement of travelling expenses. Meanwhile, here in Canada, taxpayers like you and me have to support senators, such as Keith Davey, who make no bones about the fact that they work at times virtually full-time for the Liberal party. Conversely, it is totally unacceptable to me that taxpayers should support a Tory such as Norman Atkins so he can work virtually full-time for his party too.
Turner is using political extortion. By threatening to unleash the Senate veto, he imposes an election deadline upon the Tories before January, when
the treaty is to go into effect. But what is the rush? It is not as though the Tories have hog-tied Canada into a free trade deal without an escape clause. The wording of the treaty itself provides that any new government, should the people, in their wisdom, turf out the Tories over this, can get out of the treaty with six months’ notice. So can the Americans.
By announcing his Senate scheme, Turner may have derailed it before it had a chance to proceed. American leaders must wonder who they can deal with in future in Canada if a retreaded opposition leader who suffered a humiliating defeat at the polls in 1984 can stop the signing of a treaty. Others must wonder too. Turner’s action has also insulted the current President and bewildered Congress as well as the two presidential candidates who have both endorsed the deal. Even Ed Broadbent, who opposes the free
With Turner using the Senate against free trade, Americans must wonder who they can deal with in the future
trade deal, abhors this gambit as antidemocratic.
This is a constitutional crisis brought on by the height of arrogance. Turner’s handlers will argue that the threat to block the deal paradoxically champions democracy by forcing this government to put free trade to a vote. The argument is spurious. Whether free trade happens or not, it will remain one of the most important issues in future federal elections. The economic reality is that in this country our continental policy is pre-eminent. Roughly 26 per cent of our economic activity and at least 500,000 jobs are at stake. Even so, if this particular treaty turns Canadians off, then its political proponents will be swept out of power, either this year or four or 10 years from now. If this deal turns out to be popular, its proponents will score political points.
Turner and his patronage pals in the Senate obviously consider themselves uniquely capable of deciding what is good for the country. They are convinced that Canada, and Canadians, cannot compete against the United
States even though we already are doing so. They must believe that Canadians wrongly conferred a mandate onto Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and wrongly rejected their party. They must feel that Canadians who support the deal don’t understand the true ramifications. They must feel that legions of civil servants and federal cabinet ministers negotiated a one-sided deal, which benefited Americans. They think that by enshrining old protectionist policies here at home they can stem the tide south of the border.
Here is the reality. The Americans are going protectionist and the free trade deal is a chance to get in before they bolt the barn door. Besides, the deal makes positive sense, which is why virtually every credible economic think-tank in Canada endorses it, as do all but two Liberal provincial premiers, David Peterson of Ontario and Joe Ghiz of minuscule Prince Edward Island. That is why it is little wonder that reliable polls show that the majority of Canadians in every region, as well as business organizations, the Canadian Consumers Association and most respected academics in the economics field, agree with this gutsy initiative.
Despite that, John Turner would save us from ourselves. The people have spoken, but he is not listening. The government of Brian Mulroney was given an overwhelming mandate to govern in 1984. John Turner’s government was unceremoniously thrown out. As for the Senate, its mandate should have been dissolved decades ago, and now both Turner and the senators have finally shown their stripes. They are elitists subsidized by taxpayers to defy the will of the people when it suits their purpose. It is patronage at its worst. Just who do John Turner and his gang of political bullies think they are?
But free trade may only be part of the Senate’s beef. After all, Mulroney’s government has not only undertaken the gutsiest economic initiative in Canadian history with this treaty but it is also moving to put Senate reform in place with the Meech Lake accord. Under its terms, the first ministers would meet annually until a unanimous decision is reached as to how to revamp the Senate, making it an elected body. Therein may lie the real problem, and this whole manoeuvre represents the last gasp for power of a dying institution with nothing to lose.
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