MEDIA WATCH

Prescription for a failing marriage

The media and the academics might spend their time and their talents cultivating calming thoughts in the citizenry

GEORGE BAIN July 22 1991
MEDIA WATCH

Prescription for a failing marriage

The media and the academics might spend their time and their talents cultivating calming thoughts in the citizenry

GEORGE BAIN July 22 1991

Prescription for a failing marriage

MEDIA WATCH

The media and the academics might spend their time and their talents cultivating calming thoughts in the citizenry

GEORGE BAIN

Keith Spicer, in his foreword to the report of the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future, urged the government “to reconsider its dismissal of some kind of constituent assembly....” Like many other similar advocates, he offered little of the who, what, when, where and, especially, the why of it, except that it would “restore people’s sense of owning their democracy.” To restore something is to return it to its original condition. To say that it is necessary to restore to Canadians their sense of owning their democracy should incur an obligation (a) to establish that any number of Canadians ever had such a sense, and (b) to say when and how they lost it.

Spicer’s more concrete points were that the constituent assembly “might . . . refine the principles for a new constitution before final drafting,” and that “it might give that fundamental law more credibility than today’s wounded political system could.” He also suggested that, just by making it known that it retained an open mind, the government “would invite academics and media to expose citizens to the full range of practical arguments on both sides of the assembly.”

Beyond noting that the media rarely wait on invitations, another dissent to be offered is that the sole flaw in the government’s dismissal of the constituent assembly idea is that it lacks a clear enough note of finality. What would be useful from that source is a brief statement saying the constituent assembly won’t work in present circumstances, isn’t on and is accordingly rejected. That would save many people the waste of mooning over a phantasm, and perhaps foster a sense of realism.

Had Meech Lake succeeded, a constituent assembly might have been worthwhile. Perhaps with Quebec co-operating instead of standing aloof, and with no pressing deadline, such a body might have been asked to study, in an unhurried way, the various large questions that remained, post-Meech. The demand for an assembly now—and Spicer’s reference to “to-

day’s wounded political system”—are both rooted in the idea that our politicians somehow have disqualified themselves.

Certainly following the death of the accord, there was a public reaction, not just against the 11 principal players, but blindly against “politicians” and “politics” and against “the process.” The complaint against the process was that it was “11 men meeting behind closed doors to decide the nation’s future.” But if “the process” was iniquitous, that fact was curiously slow to be discovered. For a start, it was hardly a new process—politicians talking to politicians, in Audrey McLaughlin’s disparaging phrase—in our constitutional history.

In 1990, 11 men, most of them the same men as in the beginning, were meeting—it is true, behind closed doors—to save the same accord that had been agreed to three years earlier, behind no-less-closed doors. The accord subsequently was warmly endorsed by the three leaders of the three federal parties in the House of Commons. Meanwhile, the accord had been through various committees, federal and provincial, and lengthily debated. Some people liked it, some didn’t. But “the process” was not an issue.

Why it became one only as the accord died

raises speculations. Did the complaint about “the process” really reflect no more than the elevation to a matter of substance of the phrase, endlessly reiterated on nightly television, “behind closed doors”? If so, was that a case of the medium creating a public attitude while grinding an axe of its own about those long, dull, pictureless waits between fleeting appearances by the principals? Finally, was it also the case that “the process,” having evolved from “behind closed doors,” was eagerly seized upon by persons who wanted Meech dead from the beginning, as a noblersounding reason than the truer and simpler “anti-Quebec prejudice”?

Simple time makes a strong reason for saying the constituent assembly idea won’t work. Its members first would need to be elected, or selected, under terms as yet unformulated. Probably most of the chosen would be inexperienced, given that constitutional study is not a widespread hobby. Even serving full time—in which case, what about their jobs?—could they produce a draft before a Quebec referendum scheduled for October, 1992? Any work still in progress at that time could be rendered instantly irrelevant. If the proposition were that the constituent assembly would draft broad principles, which then would be reworked into a formal document elsewhere, then put to a referendum requiring a difficult majority for ratification, even several years might not do. And that would still leave the large question of whether such an assembly, probably without truly representative representation from Quebec, could produce a document to which that province would be likely to accede.

Second, there is no magic in creating an extra-parliamentary body. Australia has had a Constitutional Convention since 1973. It still goes on, developing ideas on behalf of some state legislatures, but the federal government withdrew its support after Prime Minister Robert Hawke in 1985 damned it for its modest achievements. Between 1973 and 1985, only three of its constitutional proposals succeeded with the electorate at referendums.

Finally, a question: As the persons we elect are elected as representatives of the people, what charm is there in assembling another lot, inescapably composed of the same sort of people as those already conducting the public business in Ottawa and the provincial capitals—which is to say, fortunately or unfortunately, more Canadians?

Better than exposing citizens to the practical arguments on both sides of an illusion, the media and the academics might spend their time and talents cultivating calming thoughts in the citizenry, e.g. (1) no constitution, anywhere, ever was or will be devised that will satisfy everybody always—it is the best reconciliation of innumerable variables that can be arrived at; (2) a sense of owning your democracy may be satisfying, but it is necessary to remember that there are 27 million partners in the enterprise; and, particularly for Anglo-Canadians vis-a-vis Quebec, (3) as in any failing marriage, it is the side that most wants to keep the thing together that must make the greater accommodation.