BUSINESS WATCH

Lougheed’s brave plan to save Canada

A real constitution instead of a document imposed behind closed doors would amount to a revolution that could save the country

Peter C. Newman April 27 1992
BUSINESS WATCH

Lougheed’s brave plan to save Canada

A real constitution instead of a document imposed behind closed doors would amount to a revolution that could save the country

Peter C. Newman April 27 1992

Lougheed’s brave plan to save Canada

BUSINESS WATCH

A real constitution instead of a document imposed behind closed doors would amount to a revolution that could save the country

PETER C. NEWMAN

Despite Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa’s recent cooings, the chances of resolving Canada’s constitutional impasse alternate from improbable to impossible. That realization has rekindled the idea of bypassing the provincial and federal legislatures by establishing a national constituent assembly.

The man who is emerging as the godfather of this radical, perhaps last-chance approach to separate the hope for this country’s future from existing governments and structures is Peter Lougheed. The still-popular former Alberta premier, who has become the Canadian corporate world’s most powerful director, is quietly campaigning to make the constituentassembly idea an available option, should all else fail.

“It’s a last resort,” he told me during a recent interview, “but it could work because it will be a truly grassroots gathering that involves the election of citizens who are not currently politicians—and would not be eligible to become MPS or MLAS for at least six years. It would give the country a fallback position it now doesn’t have.”

Lougheed is fearful about current developments because he sees Central Canada hardening against the idea of a Triple E Senate, which forms the heart of western aspirations. At the same time, the former premier realizes that Bourassa cannot accept constitutional proposals for Quebec that offer less than Meech Lake. “The package can be different than Meech,” Lougheed stresses, “but it can’t be anything less in the perception of the people of Quebec.” As a politician who was a master at bargaining with Ottawa, Lougheed likes the original 28point federal package because it offers Ottawa the flexibility of discarding various items as a way for premiers to claim victory in return for their overall support.

To the standard criticism that a constituent assembly would lack legitimacy because we already have an elected body called the House of Commons, the 63-year-old Lougheed argues

that any such dilemma could be dealt with by making the constituent assembly an elected body set up by Parliament and the provincial legislatures—with an explicit understanding that its deliberations would need to be ratified both by provincial legislatures and by Parliament.

“The key will be the numbers of delegates,” he says, “and I would go with 72, divided something like this: 12 each from Ontario and Quebec; six each from the four western provinces, with the balance split among the Atlantic provinces, the territories and special representatives from the aboriginal peoples.” Prospective delegates would be required to gather 3,000 supporting signatures before being allowed onto a provincial ballot. Voters would be able to vote for all the delegates allotted to that province. The provincial elections would be coordinated so that the entire slate across the country is elected on one day with, say, the top six names on the British Columbia ballot being declared winners, each B.C. voter having marked his first six preferences in numerical order.

Lougheed advocates a brief election campaign with no one allowed to run under party labels. Expenditures would be recorded and

strictly controlled, and the campaign would be conducted primarily through free television, radio and print advertising. The winners would be given a mandate to get the job done within six months. They would be paid at the same rate as MPs, but would not be eligible for pensions.

While their first meetings might be chaired by Commons Speaker John Fraser, Lougheed’s assumption is that leaders would emerge out of the group to shepherd the process through to completion, just as they did in last winter’s five constitutional weekends. “You lock them up until they’ve made a deal,” he says, “and the big advantage is that these people would be going into the negotiations with very little past baggage. The constituent assembly would be required to report to Parliament and the provincial legislatures within half a year of having been formed.”

The biggest problem with the idea is that Quebec has already indicated that it may not hold an election for delegates from that province. “My view is, you do it even if Quebec refuses to be part of the process,” Lougheed contends, “but maybe when the assembly’s leadership comes together they can figure out a way to negotiate with Quebec. I think that there will be a lot of Quebecers, who are neither die-hard Liberals nor members of the Parti Québécois, who will put pressure on the National Assembly to take part. If Bourassa doesn’t like the formal proposal that finally comes out of Ottawa and the other provincial capitals, he now only has the choice of independence. This would give him the option of waiting to see what might come out of a constituent assembly.”

The most complicated—and most important—part of Lougheed’s constitutional initiative would be ratification of the new constitution drafted by the assembly. Lougheed’s idea is that if the majority of a province’s assembly delegates approve the recommendations, then that provincial legislature would also be required to ratify them. After that, the new constitution would be presented to the federal Parliament for its approval. The House of Commons and Senate in turn would then have to ratify any agreement passed by a sufficient majority of provincial legislatures.

Its critics claim that a constituent assembly sets up a parallel government that might permanently undermine the legitimacy of the existing political system. It’s a valid point, because having once bypassed Parliament to resolve an issue that elected representatives were unable to deal with, it may be difficult for Canadians to recapture their faith in current political institutions.

Set against that worry by constitutional purists is the fact that this country is at the brink of dissolution. If the current winds of despair and dissension are allowed to blow themselves out, there will be no Canada as we have known and loved it for 125 years. Any legitimate means of preventing that catastrophe must be attempted.

Peter Lougheed’s plan for a constituent assembly isn’t perfect. But it may be the best hope we’ve got.