Why P.E.I. is standing in the way of Senate reform

Politics trumps idealism for Premier Robert Ghiz

Robert Ghiz. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Prince Edward Island, that picturesque clump adrift in the Gulf of St Lawrence, is home to some 145,000 souls. In addition to being mostly lovely people—I’ve been there plenty, I know—they are collectively the most politically powerful in Canada. They have the most elected and non-elected representatives per resident in the country. And because of this, they stand firmly in the way of Senate reform.

As you’ve probably heard, the Senate isn’t at all popular these days. A Nanos Research poll conducted in the thick of last summer’s Duff-gate extravaganza suggested 94 per cent of Canadians were unsatisfied with the Senate status quo—including 41 per cent who want it abolished outright.

These are drool-worthy numbers for would-be Senate abolitionists, among them Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Though he has notably dragged his feet on the subject, preferring instead to appoint Senators with the addled pace of your average Liberal prime minister, Harper would like nothing more than to see the curtains close on the Senate. If nothing else, his appointees have made the red velour chamber an embarrassment to the Conservative brand.

Yet Prince Edward Island stands in the way. The Constitution guarantees PEI four unelected senators, and P.E.I. Premier Robert Ghiz will be gosh-darned if he’ll give them up. Don’t get him wrong: Ghiz said he understands the Senate is unpopular. He’s even in favour of a broad reform of the upper house.

Alas, for Ghiz, politics seemingly trumps idealism. “I would be a fool to give up any of the influence that we have in Ottawa, and I’m not going to let that happen,” Ghiz told the Globe and Mail’s Campbell Clark. His obstinacy won’t change, Ghiz added, even in the event of overwhelming, countrywide referendum results.

The premier’s chutzpah is impressive. With one senator for every 37,000 residents, you might say Islanders are a bit spoiled already. (By contrast, Alberta’s ratio is roughly one senator for 608,000 residents.) And even though numbers suggest it is well served by its patronage appointments, the scandal that is Mike Duffy has cast a lasting pall over Island politics.

Duffy isn’t what an Islander would call an Islander. His heedless ambition kept him rooted to Canada’s mainland for more than half his life, though he was never above waving his P.E.I. credentials when it suited him. At best, P.E.I. was an occasional vacation stop. At worst, it was a convenient address when Harper was handing out Senate appointments.

Most Islanders, who seem as disgusted by the Senate’s chronic overindulgences as everyone else, rightfully disdain Duffy. At a recent recording of CBC’s Q in Charlottetown, the audience erupted in a chorus of boos at the mere mention of Duffy’s name. Good on them: Duffy is exactly the kind of patronage boogeyman P.E.I. politicians need to reconsider their Senate addiction.

Other provinces are certainly doing so. Like P.E.I., Quebec worries about the exploding population in the western provinces, and what effect it will have on its political power. Yet the NDP is pushing ahead with its plan to abolish the thing entirely. Because the party’s power base is in Quebec, it is seemingly a huge gamble. Yet NDP leader Tom Mulcair, to his credit, is so sure of Quebecers’ collective disdain for the upper house that he’s pushing ahead regardless.

Ghiz, a Liberal, might take some inspiration from his orange-hued federal counterpart. The prettiest province in the country shouldn’t be an obstacle to the will of its own people, or Canadians in general.

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