The first ministers emerged from the Ottawa conference room with beaming faces, clearly confident that they had achieved a critical breakthrough. But after pondering the Senate reform proposal, many other Canadians were left to wonder why their political leaders were so pleased. The proposal—which provides for an essentially elected and equal upper chamber, along with a sharply expanded House of Commons— came under immediate attack across the country. Predictably, the outcry was loudest in Western Canada, where critics complained that their region’s aspirations for greater power had been betrayed. Declared Reform Party of Canada Leader Preston Manning: “It will never fly in Alberta or in any other Western province.” And in Quebec, nationalists criticized premier Robert Bourassa for accepting the principle of equality among the provinces in agreeing to an equal Senate. By week’s end, the backlash against the proposals seemed to be gathering force and the premiers were preparing for a major selling effort.
They face a formidable challenge. Opposition to the proposal appeared to be strongest in the four western provinces. Indeed, the deal appears to entrench the political clout of Ontario and Quebec by giving them additional seats
in the Commons, a prospect that displeased many residents of the Atlantic provinces as well as Western Canada. Opponents of the deal also complained that it represented a step away from one of the tenets of parliamentary democracy—representation by population. Said Donald Desserud, a professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick in Saint John: “When you look at all the time spent on this and how little was achieved, you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
Flaws: Ultimately, however, Canadians may have to ask themselves whether the first ministers could have devised a better solution to the Senate puzzle. For all its possible flaws, the new package represents a compromise between the West’s demands for equality and Quebec’s insistence on preserving its influence in Parliament—two objectives that, if not reconciled, could pull the country apart. And while the reformed Senate would not have as much power as many Canadians might have wished, it would not be toothless: its members would be able to delay the passage of controversial legislation for 30 days and force a new vote in a combined Commons-Senate sitting. As elected representatives, senators could also legitimately claim to be their provinces’ spokesmen, giving them a clout that is denied
to members of the existing, appointed body.
Despite that, many Westerners complained last week that they had been let down. “It is a disgusting package,” said Edmonton radio hotline host Peter Weissbach after fielding a rash of calls from listeners who expressed opposition to the proposal. “I call it the Triple-I: inefficient, ineffective and idiotic.”
The plan to add 42 new seats to the House of Commons also drew criticism. The four Western provinces would receive a combined 27.3 per cent of the seats in the new Commons, compared to 29 per cent in the existing House. However, overall Western representation in Parliament—Senate plus Commons—would increase to 29 per cent from 27.6 per cent. “We gave up power,” concluded Bobbie Sparrow, Conservative MP for Calgary Southwest. Atlantic Canada’s combined share of Commons seats would also decline—although the region could continue to be overrepresented on the basis of population.
Concern: Even among those who generally favor the deal, there is widespread concern that guaranteeing Quebec a minimum of one| quarter of the seats in the House of Commons ° conflicts with the principle of representation by population. Although Quebec is now home to 25.3 per cent of all Canadians, its share of the national population has been declining gradually. Unless the trend reverses itself, Quebec will eventually be overrepresented in the Commons. Declared University of Calgary historian David Bercuson: “We are set to throw out a concept on which the House of Commons has been based for the past 125 years.” Proponents, however, note that the principle of representation by population has never been applied strictly in Canada: seven of the provinces (all except Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia), and the two territories, now have a greater percentage of Commons seats than of the total population.
A more immediate concern, given the weak economy, is the cost of implementing the proposed reforms. Robert Fleming, editor of Canadian Legislatures, which surveyed the 1991 salaries, benefits and perquisites of all Canadian legislators, estimates that a reformed Senate and an enlarged House of Commons would cost taxpayers an additional $300 million a year. About $100 million of that expense would be attributable to the new Senate, whose members would require larger office staffs and bigger budgets to perform their new duties. Enlarging the House of Commons, he added, would add between $16 million and $25 million to that chamber’s current annual budget of $236 million. There would also be the cost of renovating the House of Commons to accommodate the new members—and the expense of Senate elections. Declared Fleming: “We’re getting into very big sums of money.” In the weeks ahead, the premiers and their allies will face a stiff challenge confronting allegations that a reformed Senate and enlarged House of Commons are not worth the price.
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