His name is unfamiliar to most Canadians, but few citizens had more influence on the latest plan to restore national unity than Peter Nicholson. A former Liberal member of the Nova Scotia legislature, and now a senior vice-president in Toronto of the Bank of Nova Scotia, the 50-year-old Nicholson is a self-described political junkie with, as he puts it, “a lifelong interest in public policy.” Five months ago, that interest led him to draft his own proposal for Senate reform—a plan that, with several modifications, formed the basis of last week’s tentative agreement among Ottawa and the nine English-speaking provinces.
Nicholson traces his involvement in the unity talks to a conversation in Montreal last February with Jocelyne Bourgon, a senior adviser to the federal cabinet on federal-provincial relations. Nicholson, who has known Bourgon for a decade, asked her if any of the participants in a conference on Senate reform in Calgary a week earlier had proposed giving each province an equal
number of Senate seats—on the condition that a substantial majority would be required to override House of Commons legislation. “She said, ‘No, but that’s an interesting idea,’ ” Nicholson recalled. "So I went into my office one weekend and wrote it up.”
The result was a five-page document summarizing Nicholson’s view that the simplest way to resolve the Senate impasse was to focus on the effectiveness of the upper chamber, rather than arguing about the principle of provincial equality. Setting the override percentage at two-thirds or three-quarters, Nicholson’s paper added, would ensure “that senators representing a very small population base would not be able to block the will of the House of Commons.”
Nicholson then distributed his proposal to a handful of federal and provincial officials, including Bourgon and Nova Scotia Premier Donald Cameron, another longtime acquaintance.
For a while, there was no reaction. But
about two months ago, an official in Cameron’s government told him that the Nova Scotia delegation intended to circulate copies of the plan at the next round of unity talks. Then,
earlier this month, Nicholson received the first official indication that his proposal had been taken seriously: speaking to reporters after meeting the premiers in Toronto, Constitutional Affairs Minister Joe Clark
praised “the Nicholson plan” and said that it had helped to break the deadlock on Senate reform.
Even so, Nicholson is modest about his contribution to the unity debate. “I think it was a fairly obvious innovation,” he says. “It’s not exactly rocket science.” He adds that he is uncertain about the implications of a Triple E Senate: “On the one hand, I hope that it will strengthen the national government by reducing regional alienation. But people who say we are
flying blind are absolutely
right. No one has any clear idea how this will shake out.”
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