Senate Reform Dust-Up
There is no question that the Canada West Foundation has been a long standing champion of Senate reform. It was the Foundation that largely put together the architecture for the Tripe E model—elected, equal and effective—and it has been the Foundation’s staff and Board members who have been keepers of the Senate reform flame through countless conferences, public forums, editorials and constitutional debates.
Why, then, have I been quoted in the press as being a reform skeptic? Has the Foundation abandoned the cause, or is this a case of a departing CEO losing his grip?
While I am tempted to fall back on the self-serving quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson that “consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” the larger truth is that the world has changed, and with that change comes the need to rethink many of our shibboleths, including Senate reform.
The push for Senate reform initially came at a time when western Canadians lacked an effective voice in the national Parliament, and thus Senate reform was proposed as a part of the solution. It was also pointed out that well-functioning federations all had upper houses that were based on regional representation, and that Canada’s Senate was a growing international embarrassment.
However, the proponents of Senate reform found no political traction, and the notion was repeatedly dismissed with a mixture of scorn and ridicule by governments of the day. But, as the movement for reform stalled, the world changed. The West grew in economic and demographic power, and then in 2006 a national government was elected with strong representation from western Canada.
Did the Canada West Foundation then abandon the field?
No, and indeed we supported the partial reform measures introduced by Stephen Harper’s Conservative government. We argued that those measures were a constructive start, that they destabilized a status quo that badly needed to be destabilized. However, we also began to rethink the goal of equal provincial representation given Canada’s evolving demography. And, we argued that the partial measures must be seen as a way-station rather than a final destination.
So, where does this leave me, and to a lesser extent where does it leave the Canada West Foundation given that the Foundation and I are shortly to go our separate ways?
Speaking personally, I strongly support a reformed and elected Senate. I also believe that such reform is less needed today for regional representation than it was in the past, but is still badly needed to strengthen democratic government in Canada. I appreciate that the Harper government finally got the Senate reform ball rolling after generations of stonewalling by previous governments.
At the same time, I believe that we have to make sure that our reform models going forward align with Canada’s changing circumstances. It would be a mistake to assume that clinging to reform models first put together in the early 1980s will serve the long term interests of western Canadians or Canadians at large. We can and must do better.
Dr. Roger Gibbins is the President & CEO of the Canada West Foundation. The Canada West Foundation is the only think tank dedicated to being the objective, nonpartisan voice for issues of vital concern to Western Canadians.