Here is today’s geometry snap quiz: how can you make two triangles plus ten equal provinces divided by Western momentum equal one coherent country? A hint: if you answer “Senate reform” you must stay behind and write 1000 times, “Constitutional change is the kiss of death”.
Before you begin, let’s talk for a moment about the terms of the question, beginning with the two triangles.
It used to be that there was only one triangle that mattered: Montreal-Ottawa-Toronto, where the country’s political, economic and population weight was concentrated.
But the last federal election consecrated the emergence of a new upstart competing triangle: Calgary-Edmonton-Vancouver. If the 20th Century belonged to Canada, as Sir Wilfrid Laurier so famously claimed, the 21st belongs to the West.
As Asia progressively joins the world economy, and America understandably frets about its own security, the Canadian west has everything the world wants. A natural resource boom of unimaginable size is washing over the region. Their vast coal, natural gas, conventional and synthetic oil, diamonds, uranium, potash and copper are the talk of the world.
Alberta now officially contains as much oil as Saudi Arabia; it has the rule of law, low taxes and a breathtaking work ethic. The current projections for energy related construction projects in Alberta alone over the next few decades? Perhaps as much as one hundred billion dollars as it becomes the conduit for not only its own energy reserves, but those of Alaska and our own northern territories headed to US markets.
British Columbia will eventually add significant offshore petroleum reserves to its existing natural gas and coal. The Olympics will be there in a few years, helping to feed a construction and housing boom. Fort McMurray, capital of the oil sands, can’t grow fast enough, so airstrips are springing up on the edge of town as companies fly in their workers from eastern BC.
Immigrants are following opportunity west. Globalization will force manufacturing in Central Canada to become leaner and employ fewer people; workers will shift west in even greater numbers. Already in the last census Alberta’s population growth was twice that of Ontario’s, while Quebec was largely stagnant. These trends are accelerating.
The West has had more MPs than Quebec for years. Soon the region will overtake Ontario, with parliamentary weight to match.
So what’s all the fuss about Senate reform? Twenty-five years ago, a similar natural resource boom in Alberta was brought to a crashing halt by Ottawa’s ham-fisted National Energy Program. The result was a firestorm of western alienation and anger. Despairing of being able to influence Liberal policies, the west rallied first to Brian Mulroney’s Tories and later to Reform. In addition, Alberta became a hotbed of schemes to tinker with Canada’s political structure with the objective of making future NEPs impossible. The Triple-EEE Senate (equal, elected, effective) was the best known.
But ironically, a Senate reform putting all the provinces on an equal footing would today give extra power, not to the New West, but the Old East, the declining power base of the Liberal Party. In a EEE Senate, for example, equalization-receiving provinces would hold a strong majority, making serious reform even less likely and creating a new power base arguing for transfers from an increasingly wealthy west. That is the opposite of why Alberta became Senate reform’s great champion.
In any case, Alberta and the West now have an ally they did not have back in the NEP days: Washington. The Americans are thrilled to have such massive energy resources on their doorstep and would energetically oppose any policy that might put a damper on their development.
Senate reform is chiefly in the interests of small provinces, not large ones. BC figured this out long ago, joining Ontario and Quebec in the ranks of the skeptics. Alberta is now a big province economically and has growing political clout, as Calgarian Stephen Harper attests. Quebec wants no part of equality with tiny provinces in a powerful elected body, but can be wooed by respecting the federal-provincial division of powers, reining in Ottawa’s recent enthusiasm for dabbling in areas of provincial jurisdiction. That suits Alberta and BC too.
Senate reform is a second-best strategy for people who think they can’t win political power. Alberta and the West are now political winners. Why take on something as politically unpopular and uncertain of success as constitutional reform when a reformed Senate would make your own life hell if you are in government in Ottawa? And if you elect senators without amending the constitution, you leave in place the huge imbalance in numbers of senators among the provinces, the Senate’s theoretically huge power, and lifetime tenure for senators.
That’s the worst of all possible worlds: a powerful Senate with little responsibility and no accountability. Pray that Stephen Harper understands geometry.
Brian Lee Crowley is president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies (www.aims.ca), a public policy think tank in Halifax. E-mail: BrianLeeCrowley@AIMS.ca