It’s like putting a puzzle together

Duceppe saw the Harper government’s reform bill as part of a plot to subjugate Quebec

It's like putting a puzzle together

Sean Kilpatrick / CP

This being Canada, the most common response to a bill that would move the House of Commons a step closer to representation by population—one person, one vote, the most hallowed principle of democracy—was deep suspicion.

The case for reform is surely beyond dispute: the number of people per seat currently varies from roughly 35,000 in P.E.I. to more than 132,000 in Alberta. The six least populous provinces, plus the territories, have between them roughly the same population as British Columbia, yet are allotted 63 seats to its 36. In no other democracy are such massive anomalies permitted.

Yet no sooner had the Conservatives introduced a bill—their third—to bring these ratios a little more in line (with 30 more seats between them, B.C., Alberta and Ontario would still be under-represented, but no more so now than Quebec) than the caterwauling began. The leader of the Bloc Québécois, Gilles Duceppe, saw the legislation as part of a plot to subjugate Quebec. Less predictably, the noted Université de Moncton political scientist, Donald Savoie, denounced the bill as an insult to Atlantic Canada. “As a Maritimer, I’m deeply offended,” he told an interviewer. “If we keep going down this road, I’m worried about the future of my country.”

Sigh. Only in Canada is rep by pop a controversial idea. Still, you can understand their concern: as Ontario and the West continue their rapid growth, the relative weight of Quebec and the East can only diminish over time. Quebec, in particular, must feel keenly its loss of clout. From 1867 through 1988, Quebec was the undisputed kingmaker: in only three elections was a party able to win a majority in the country without also taking a majority of the seats in Quebec. But as the province’s population falls to 20 per cent of the whole (it was more than a third at Confederation), what once was almost unthinkable is likely to become the norm.

So it was intriguing that the Tories should have chosen, in the same week as the rep-by-pop bill, to revive the subject of Senate reform, reintroducing legislation limiting senators’ terms to eight years. Again, the conventional wisdom is that this is simply a ploy to gin up the base. Full-blown Senate reform would require a constitutional amendment, and as such, it is thought, can’t possibly succeed, notably in view of Quebec’s perennial and determined opposition.

But can we still take that as a given? If the province no longer holds a controlling share of the Commons, might it not come in time to rather like the idea?

Certainly the continued relative decline of the Maritimes’ position can only add fuel to reform sentiments in the region. And yet the West is not about to put aside its own traditional support for the cause, seeing a reformed Senate as a bulwark against any Central Canadian raids on its resource wealth. There is a historic moment approaching, in other words, when each region may be so fearful of the others as to agree on the need to bind the majority in this way. (And if Ontario should object? What’s it going to do? Separate?)

Of course, there are still the particular interests of the premiers, as distinct from their populations, to be addressed. Any expansion of the Senate’s role as the forum for regional concerns can only come at the expense of the premiers, who have been accustomed to playing that part until now. Some means of buying them off will have to be found.

Enter yet another recent development: last week’s Quebec budget, with its provocative inclusion of a $25 user fee for each doctor’s appointment. You can argue whether this was technically a violation of the Canada Health Act all you like: it is still extraordinary that this should have raised so little protest out of Ottawa, from either side of the House. Again, this is a sign of things to come. With the cost of health care nearing 50 per cent of provincial budgets, no federal government has any intention of withholding federal transfers in retaliation, from Quebec or any other province. The Canada Health Act is a dead letter.

In which case, the transfers themselves have lost their raison d’être. If they are no longer conditional, if there are no strings attached, then all that’s left is two levels of government spending the same money twice. Which means the way is clear for the feds to make the provinces an offer: in lieu of transfers, we’ll hand over the equivalent tax room—tax points, in the language of fiscal federalism—whose value will grow over time.

More money, and a free hand in social policy. And in return? Senate reform might be one federal demand. So might a stronger economic union, with the feds as enforcers: after all, Ottawa already has that power under the Constitution—as the Harper government has also been at pains to remind them, most recently in the platform on which it was last elected.

Is there a pattern here? All three—Commons reform, Senate reform, and the economic union—have been recurring themes of this government, contrary to its decentralizing reputation: for all three would have the effect of strengthening federal power and legitimacy. Is a federal withdrawal from social policy the quid pro quo, the last piece of the puzzle?

The pieces are all in play, that much is certain. The question is: do they fit together?

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