Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The snag in Mulcair's P.E.I. fishing trip

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CORNWALL, P.E.I. -- Federal New Democratic Party Leader Tom Mulcair recently brought his campaign to abolish the Senate to the country's smallest province.

But while Senate reform may well prove to be a popular topic with Canadian voters, many also realize the NDP leader has a political agenda of his own. After all, should the party vault from opposition status to the government benches in the 2015 election, the fact the NDP has no members in the Red Chamber would be a major political headache for him.

That being said, the opposition leader must have had high hopes of finding a receptive audience in the Cradle of Confederation, the sometimes home of one of the leading players in the expense scandal that is now rocking the chamber of sober second thought. I speak, of course, of Mike Duffy.

The former broadcaster, who is hanging on as an independent after resigning from the Conservative caucus, has become the poster boy for the scandal, despite the fact he didn't have the largest expense claim under investigation.

Even if he somehow manages to come through the RCMP investigation and the coming audit of all senators, he can never be an effective voice for the province again. His reputation is tarnished beyond repair.

It might be easy to surmise that, after suffering through months of headlines, capped by a giant Duffy balloon floating over Ottawa, Islanders might say 'off with all their heads' -- constitutionally speaking of course.

If we were a large and "have" province, there is no doubt in my mind Mulcair's campaign would make some headway here. Instead, we are small and "have not." Next year, we will hold year-long celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the 1864 Charlottetown Conference that led to Confederation.

That's nice, you might say, but what does it have to do with Senate abolition? In fact, it is directly related. While we hosted the meeting, don't forget we didn't join the new country until nine years later, and only after Ottawa agreed to wipe out our railway-building debt.

The reason we didn't join is simple -- we're small and we felt that our voice wouldn't be listened to in a larger forum like Parliament. In fact, the politicians of the day could envision a time when we would be represented in the nation's capital by one MP, since the number of seats each province gets is determined by population.

During that round of nation-building, Ottawa and the provinces agreed to insert a clause in what was then the British North America Act stipulating that no province could have less MP's than in does senators. Originally, they Island was given six MPs and four senators.

The time when P.E.I. is entitled to one MP based on its population has long since arrived. Even though our allocation of four MPs is a small percentage of the 308 Commons seats (it will be 338 after the next election), we are still vastly overrepresented when it comes to our population. And as long as that constitutional amendment is in place, that will continue.

If the Senate were to be abolished, however, that guarantee would be meaningless, unless PEI could convince the other provinces to allow us to keep our four seats. As Brian Mulroney found out when negotiating the failed Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords, amending the Constitution is no easy business.

That's why Senate abolition is a tough sell in P.E.I. Islanders are willing to look at reform and electing senators but abolition is pretty much a non-starter. For a time, Premier Robert Ghiz was advocating an American-style Senate, where each province would have the same number of senators regardless of population.

It is understandable why a P.E.I. premier might advocate that position, but it is unrealistic to think anybody else would go along with it. The premier even stopped trying to sell it to a local audience after it was pointed out if the number of senators in that formula were less than four, it would cost the province seats in the Commons.

The fact the Harper government is now asking the Supreme Court to look at ways to change the Senate, while bypassing the Constitutional amending formula, suggests the issue of reform is going to be around for some time yet. It may well be an issue heading into the 2015 vote.

While NDP candidates will be backing the party line in the issue, it will probably not be the first thing they bring up when talking to people on the doorstep.

A life-long resident of Prince Edward Island, Troy Media columnist Andy Walker has been a writer and commentator for more than 30 years.


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 22, 2013 A13

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