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Heresy: Say 'No' to Triple-E Senate

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PREMIER Ralph Klein has gotten Ottawa tongues wagging in disapproval by his new interest in the "Alberta firewall" concept. This plan would supposedly soothe Alberta anger at the depredations of a distant, almost foreign central government.

Think Kyoto and gun control, not to mention the systematic and unabated bleeding of Alberta money to buy votes elsewhere in the country.

The "firewall" refers to a set of de-coupling measures, all constitutional and all much to the benefit of Alberta. These include setting up its own pensions system (displacing the CPP and keeping a huge amount of money in the province while lowering rates and raising benefits), its own police force (displacing the RCMP) and its own tax system. These are all good things (and Quebec has long done them all), but one reinvigorated buzz in this mix should be set aside for now as untimely at best and, at worst, a mistake.

I speak of the "Triple-E" Senate -- the idea that the Senate should be "Elected, Effective and Equal", as the slogan goes. I know this idea has historically had some support in Manitoba too, but I say it would be wrong not just for Alberta but for my province of B.C. and for Canada. And I say that as one who was "present at the creation" of this concept over 20 years ago.

Triple-E is not a new idea on the face of the earth. It precisely describes the American Senate, as well as the Swiss upper house and other examples. The concept is that each region in a diverse federal country should have an equal voice in at least one part of the legislature. The goal is to counterbalance the customary "rep by pop" representation in the usual lower house (the House of Commons, in our case), wherein huge populations -- Ontario, say -- will always win against us numerically lesser folk.

So when Senator Ernest Manning, Professor Peter McCormick and myself gathered in 1980 to write a book called "Regional Representation" under the aegis of the Canada West Foundation and its president, David Elton, the idea was in play. Regional alienation was then endemic in the West as it is today, even though the strong emotions caused by the National Energy Policy had yet to surface. The issue then, as now, was how to ensure that the central government, always dominated by the huge electoral vote of central Canada, would take the West seriously.

Senator Ernest, the father of Preston and former Premier of Alberta, was a man of immense dignity and wisdom. Looking back, I think he just let the rest of us to have our fun, weighing in only when we were really off the rails. Back then, we all wanted what was to become Preston's slogan: "The West wants in!" We wanted to count in Ottawa.

We settled on the Senate as the way to do this. The House of Commons could reform itself any day if it so chose, but what prime minister would ever allow that? (Paul... Paul...?) So the only way to get clout in Ottawa would be to reform the Senate in ways that party loyalty would count for much less and regional loyalty would count for much more. We could finally bring the four-year elected dictators (a.k.a. prime ministers) under control.

You can read the result in "Regional Representation" (Canada West Foundation, 1980). Triple-E was the bottom line. The big argument of course was over "equal" status. After all, equality between Ontario and PEI?

We had our debates:

"Quebec will never accept this" -- We adopted the idea of a "double majority" (Quebec and the rest) to be required on linguistic and cultural matters.

"PEI is too tiny" -- We pointed to Rhode Island in the United States.

"Ontario will never buy it" -- Maybe, but nothing is better for Ontario than a happy Canada. (And recall Premier David Peterson offering to give up Senate seats to try to make the Charlottetown deal work.)

And so the book emerged and (with many other intellectual inputs, for sure) Triple E became adopted Alberta gospel. Dear friend Bert Brown, now a "Senator-elect" from Alberta and then a farmer, ploughed a "EEE" emblem into his wheat fields with letters so large I think they could be seen from the moon. Alberta Premier Getty actually got Brian Mulroney to appoint one of his "elected" Senators (by plebiscite, the fine Stan Waters) to the Red Chamber.

And there it ended. Mulroney's successor, the Little Embarrassment from Shawinigan, knew just how much gratitude freely elected Senators would have to him (such independence exactly the hoped-for idea, of course) and that was that.

Twenty years have changed a lot of things. "The West wants in" idea didn't work, despite heroic efforts by Preston Manning and western voters. The world has become a lot more decentralized in that time, too, much of this driven by technology. As we become economically and culturally globalized, the urge for more local political control is a natural reaction to this. Today a better slogan might be "The West wants out" in terms of central government influence. Keep the team logo, fire most of the head office and manage most things closer to home.

Ominously, a Triple-E Senate would today conspire to fiscally unbalance the federation. The "Small Six" of the 10 provinces are "client-states" of the central government. Their small size allows Ottawa to push them around. They get a lot of money from the feds and are forced to give much support in return. A Triple-E Senate would give these provinces a perpetual majority in the Senate with a built-in bias to bleeding the four larger provinces (containing 85 per cent of the population) and supporting the centralist ways of the Ottawa bunch forever and ever.

That fact alone is sufficient for B.C. and Alberta to avoid wasting precious political cards in pushing the Triple-E idea. At most, a "two-and one-half-E" Senate might work: Elected, Effective, but not Equal.

One way to force this would be to get some prime minister to agree to appoint the "elected Senators" along the Alberta model. And why should not Manitoba or Saskatchewan start to "elect" Senators as well? It just requires another couple of lines on the regular election ballot. The unfolding vision of a "two-tier" Senate -- some members with legitimacy, some not -- gradually evolving into an unbalanced monster of huge power, would force First Ministers to act on reform sooner rather than later.

But the best route of all would be to simply abolish the Senate and get on with Jean Charest's Council of the Federation as a form of providing intergovernmental cooperation, which is what is really needed these days.

I'd love a referendum on abolition. Maybe some Senator will suggest it?

Gordon Gibson is a Vancouver-based commentator. His address is

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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