THE GOVERNMENT SHOWS NEW SIGNS OF SUPPORT FOR A CROSS-COUNTRY REFERENDUM ON NATIONAL UNITY
A PEOPLE’S CHOICE
THE GOVERNMENT SHOWS NEW SIGNS OF SUPPORT FOR A CROSS-COUNTRY REFERENDUM ON NATIONAL UNITY
Since his election in September, 1984, Conservative Patrick Boyer has earned a reputation as one of the most thoughtful—and dogged—members of the House of Commons. In the past 10 years, the 47-year-old lawyer has written seven books on parliamentary reform, including three advocating the use of national referendums in federal decision-making. And twice since 1988, the Toronto-area MP has introduced a private member’s bill that would create the legislative mechanisms to allow for such nationwide votes, although his efforts were subsequently rebuffed or ignored by fellow Tories. But on Parliament Hill last week, following Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s declaration of support for a referendum on constitutional reform, Boyer appeared to be a man whose time had finally come. Declared a bemused Boyer: “MPs who were telling me that I was crazy two weeks ago are now saying that they knew I was right all along.”
That sudden burst of support was just one sign of the increasing likelihood that Canadians will be asked to vote on their country’s future—and, conceivably, whether it has one. A national referendum would probably take place early in the fall. At week’s end, a senior Tory strategist told Maclean ’s that a referendum on national unity “is now far better than a 50-50 possibility.” But he conceded that federal officials still have many more questions than answers about the logistics—and ramifications— of the vote. Noted Christine Jackson, director of communications for Elections Canada: “This is all hypothetical. There are a lot of technical things that have to be done.”
In fact, key Tory advisers acknowledged that the government has done little research into the process and is unprepared for such a campaign. Among the issues raised by skeptics within the party, and still unresolved by strategists, is whether to stage a plebiscite—the
results of which would not be binding on the government—rather than a referendum, after which the government would legally be obliged to abide by the outcome. Also unclear is whether the government would claim victory even if its constitutional proposals failed to win majority support in all parts of the country—and whether the dangers to national unity of losing a referendum outweigh the potential advantages of holding a vote. Declared former Saskatchewan premier Allan Blakeney: “Nobody who is above the mental age of 12 would undertake this without at least contemplating what would happen if they lost.”
Although Mulroney himself appears inclined to take that gamble, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark clearly would rather not. In France last week, Mulroney said that he is
prepared to hold a national referendum by October (Quebec is obliged to hold a provincewide vote on sovereignty by Oct. 26) unless his government reaches a negotiated settlement with the premiers before then. Declared the Prime Minister: “I will not sit idly by and allow damage to be done to Canada without putting proposals to the Canadian people.” Advisers to Mulroney say that the referendum proposal— originally conceived as a means of prodding the premiers towards an agreement—is now increasingly favored by the Prime Minister on its own merits. Said one Tory adviser: “He would love a referendum campaign. [He has] a real belief that if he gets out there and confronts his enemies, he will do really well.” But Clark and several other senior Tories remain privately doubtful. Declared Boyer: “Joe has always
been suspicious of putting this kind of thing into the hands of the people, and I see no indication that he has changed his views.”
Similar uncertainties were evident last week at a two-day constitutional meeting in Halifax involving federal, provincial, territorial and native leaders. Although the prospect of a national referendum was not on the official agenda, it surfaced as an issue early in the discussions. Several premiers, including Prince Edward Island’s Joe Ghiz and Newfoundland’s
THE REFERENDUM LANDSLIDE
Nearly nine out of 10 Canadians want the federal government to hold a national referendum on the country’s future. Asked how the constitutional crisis should be settled, they responded:
By a national referendum.......46%
By Parliament and
the provincial legislatures.......11%
Source: Maclean's/Decima poll published Jan. 6, 1992.
Clyde Wells, endorsed it in principle. And in Montreal, Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa, who has boycotted constitutional meetings since the 1990 death of the Meech Lake accord, said that he “understood” Mulroney’s support for a referendum in all 10 provinces. Federal officials acknowledged that Bourassa's tacit support is critical, and they added that they likely would have shelved the plan if he had disapproved. But Ontario Premier Bob Rae, officials from Nova Scotia’s delegation and Alberta Intergovernmental Affairs Minister James Horsman were noticeably cool to the proposal. Said Horsman in an interview: “You could create long-lasting divisions.”
Alberta itself is almost certain to be at the centre of some of those constitutional divisions. By the end of last week’s Halifax meeting, a consensus began to emerge on several contentious issues. Regarding the question of granting “distinct society” status to Quebec, Clark said that the participants had engaged in a “coming together” even though some, among them Newfoundland’s Wells, continued to express reservations. The meeting also concluded with an agreement to recognize the inherent native right to self-government in the Constitution, although concerns remained about the practical details of implementing that right. But strategists in all three major federal parties still say that it is unlikely that the negotiations will succeed by the May 31 federal deadline, because Wells and Alberta Premier Donald Getty will likely reject any agreement that fails to give each province an equal number of seats in a reformed Senate.
Another stumbling block to a federal-provincial agreement is the continuing unpopularity of the Mulroney government. To overcome that obstacle, Tory strategists are planning a patchwork of alliances with the federal Liberals and New Democrats, as well as most of the 10 premiers. Said Blakeney: “If the federal government does it [alone], it runs a large risk of being regarded as a product of the Mulroney government, and therefore it would be defeated.” Liberal Leader Jean Chrétien, who advocated a
constitutional referendum as long ago as 1990, told Maclean ’s last week that he would be willing to work with the Tories in support of a reform package “that does not tear the federal government’s powers to pieces.” But if Ottawa proposes too much decentralization, Chrétien added, “We will fight them all the way—and they do not need any more enemies than they already have.” For their part, NDP officials say privately that while they hope a national referendum can be avoided, they now consider it likely.
The government’s strategy also rests on the fact that the key areas of its constitutional proposals—such as Senate reform and distinct society status for Quebec—require only the approval of any seven provinces representing more than 50 per cent of Canada’s population. But representatives of the three major parties say that they recognize the need to win broad-based support in each of the country’s five main regions. In practical terms, that would mean majority approval from voters in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia, as well as at least three of the four Atlantic provinces and two of the three Prairie provinces.
To maximize their chances of winning, federal officials favor a referendum question that would ask voters whether they approved or disapproved of a federal package in its entirety, rather than polling them on individual elements of the proposal. Presumably, that would secure the support of voters who agreed generally with the principles of the package but disliked some of the specifics. To overcome the anticipated opposition from Alberta’s Getty, Mulroney has regularly sought advice from former premier Peter Lougheed, who still wields enormous influence in the province. The Tories also
hope to improve their chances in British Columbia by winning support from the federal NDP, which holds 19 of the 32 seats in that province and enjoys close ties with the government of Premier Michael Harcourt.
Bourassa himself pointed out several options to Mulroney during a two-hour meeting between the two men in Montreal. Senior advisers to the premier told Maclean ’s that Bourassa favors a two-track strategy, in which the first step would involve those constitutional reforms requiring only the approval of seven provinces representing at least 50 per cent of the population. After that, the federal government would begin a second round of negotiations on matters requiring the approval of all 10 provinces—including Quebec’s demand for a veto over future constitutional changes. In a referendum offering Quebec the same basic
conditions it would have received under the failed Meech Lake accord, a Bourassa adviser said, federalists would probably win a slim majority, with about 55 per cent of the vote. But if Quebec also gained a constitutional veto, “we think we can get 60 per cent, and close the door on sovereignty talk for the foreseeable future.”
In fact, Tory strategists say that the mood in the country is now more favorable to a constitutional agreement than at any time since the rancorous death of the “ Meech Lake accord. A recent
1 internal government poll U found that 62 per cent of re-
2 spondents believed that Quebec will separate if there is no constitutional agreement;
during the final round of Meech negotiations in 1990, that figure never rose above 26 per cent. And a majority said that Quebec independence would cause economic loss across the country. Said a senior adviser to Mulroney: “There is a sense of urgency out there that we did not see during Meech.”
For all of that, several of Mulroney’s closest aides are still counselling caution. Said one: “The problem is that we know what we want people to answer—but not what to ask them.” Until that is settled, the issue of whether a referendum is to be or not to be will remain the most pressing question.
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