MEDIA WATCH

Looking south for a little inspiration

Spicer should dump the dreams, abandon make-do-and-mend, and think how we are going to get a new style of government

GEORGE BAIN November 26 1990
MEDIA WATCH

Looking south for a little inspiration

Spicer should dump the dreams, abandon make-do-and-mend, and think how we are going to get a new style of government

GEORGE BAIN November 26 1990

Looking south for a little inspiration

MEDIA WATCH

Spicer should dump the dreams, abandon make-do-and-mend, and think how we are going to get a new style of government

GEORGE BAIN

It is a pity we hadn’t the sense back in the 1860s when we were borrowing our parliamentary system from the British to borrow a bit more and incorporate in our Constitution a scheme of domestic titles. Had we, there would have been at least a knighthood, perhaps a peerage, to give Keith Spicer as a reward for taking on the job of liberating in a matter of months the dreams, ideals and emotions of Canadians and distilling them into something useful in constitution-making. As it is, there is nothing except perhaps a bar to his Order of Canada or the Senate, and the Senate at the moment is, although fortunately not in the Criminal Code sense, a House of ill repute.

Moved solely by boundless compassion, I am going to put in front of the new national dreamcollector a proposal to help him in his awesome task. I agree with him that, in the past, we have dwelt too much on procedure and structure in our constitution-making. However, I am less sure that any such preoccupation has caused us to lose sight of ideals and emotions, as Spicer is reported to believe. It would be necessary, first, to establish that we once had them, when and where we last saw them, and what they looked like so they might be recognized in case we stumbled on them again.

My suggestion is that we go straight to the fundamentals and scrap the structure altogether—which is to say, the Constitution Act of 1982, which incorporates the British North America Act of 1867, with amendments. Top of the list, that means abandoning our parliamentary system of government, which hasn’t really done us well, and is less and less suited to the demands of the times.

During the mid-1860s, the Fathers of Confederation, with the just-ended American Civil War very much in mind, were determined not to make the mistake the Founding Fathers had in the United States. We weren’t going to have a federation of states from which any one, or several, might just walk away—as the states of the Confederacy had done. We were going to have a strong central government, in relation

to which the provinces would be no more than glorified municipalities. So what happened? The republic to the south wound up with the strong central government, and we wound up with the “number of . . . states united by a feeble bond,” as Viscount Monck, the governor general of the day, smugly described the American union.

Clearly, Spicer, who seems not to be constrained by any very clear terms of reference anyway, should dump the dreams, abandon make-do-and-mend, and think how we are to go about getting a new style of government altogether. The way to do that is to retain a private think-tank, preferably in the United States, to come in, look at what we’ve got and haven’t got—notably (see above) a system of government that works—and have a constitution designer-made for us.

During the 1970s, Saudi Arabia wanted to create a steel industry (a) to provide a use for billions of cubic feet of natural gas that were being wasted, and (b) to add to the kingdom’s economic base for the day the oil would run out. Recognizing its own lack of technological skill for the task, it called in a California firm. It is time for Canadians to recognize, as the Saudis did, a certain lack, in our case, of a capacity for

compromise, accommodation and trust essential to constitution-making. That recognized, the job can be contracted out.

Something on the American model should be what we are looking for. We already have a bill of rights. Going American would give us automatically the Triple E Senate that the western and Atlantic provinces want. And a congressional system, with the executive and legislative branches of government separated, would allow the legislators we elect actually to legislate, as distinct from just voting on command.

The House of Commons, to which we elect all those members of Parliament, debates, right? Why? What is debate for? Those (I say it modestly) are good questions. Because the system is adversarial, and ever more bitterly so, the highest duty of an MP on the government side is to see that what the government puts forward, it matters not what, is passed. MPs on the opposition side exist to help their parties oppose—again, it matters not what. If Finance Minister Michael Wilson were to say tomorrow that henceforth every adult Canadian would receive $50 every Friday, Herb Gray, the opposition leader, would say that it wasn’t enough, and anyway should be indexed to inflation, and would demand the minister’s resignation. Audrey McLaughlin would say that it should have been done sooner and would want to know if the payment would be subject to the GST. On that, or any other matter, the most cogent speech ever heard would not change one vote.

Debate, then, perhaps influences public thinking? Hardly. During the summer, with three ships and a Canadian fighter squadron sent to the Persian Gulf and native unrest blooming at home, various editorialists demanded that Parliament be reconvened. Canadians, said The Toronto Star, were deeply concerned and lacked answers to critical questions. “Yet,” it went on, “at this time of crisis, Parliament has been totally ignored.” (It might have added, but didn’t, that, except for Question Period, it usually is.)

When Parliament came back, both subjects were debated. The debate on native affairs on Sept. 25 went through until 4 a.m. It filled 138 pages of Hansard. Fifty MPs spoke, many more than once. Given the chance perhaps to answer all those critical questions, The Toronto Star ran 24 inches of type on the debate and covered three (count ’em, three) speakers—the Prime Minister, Ethel Blondin, the Liberal aboriginal affairs critic, and New Democratic Leader McLaughlin. No ordinary MP got a look-in. Six other metropolitan dailies across the country did no better and most did worse.

Does it matter? If what goes on in Parliament does not matter—the U.S. media are not similarly inattentive to Congress—it matters. It matters enough to make radical change worth thinking about. Naturally, in considering this advice that we simply scrap the system, call in the consultants and have a new one built for us, Spicer will have to think about how the aspirations of Quebec might accord with the introduction of a congressional system. However, he can’t expect to have quite all his work done for him.