Posted December 4, 2012
Those who are appointed to the Senate of Canada are often useful tidying up legislation that has been passed by the House but this is seldom of general interest. Senators are sometimes interesting, without being useful, as when losing boxing matches or setting records for non-attendance. Senators are infrequently useful and interesting at the same time.
Senators Greene, Duffy, and Wallace may have created an exception to the normal rule in their efforts revive discussion of Maritime Union. It is a safe bet that such a discussion will never be lead by premiers or any other group of provincial politicians who plan to seek re-election. In fact, several have already weighed in with negative comments.
The three provinces have a total of 134 MLAs. Ontario, with more than six times the combined population, makes do with 107. A comparison with other provinces suggests perhaps 65-70 would be sufficient if the Maritime provinces joined forces. Combining the three provinces would mean at least two premiers and half of the MLAs would be out of a job, so we should not be surprised at their lack of enthusiasm.
Voters will recall that councillors in HRM likewise made impassioned arguments why their excessive numbers (did they wonder how Calgary makes do with only 14?) should be maintained. In that case it was possible, through the Utilities and Review Board, to impose a reduction.
The federal government cannot force provinces to amalgamate. Donald Savoie and others have made the case for why this would enable less expensive government and better integrated services. The question is how to get beyond an academic discussion.
Working through provincial politicians has a negligible chance of success.
To move the discussion forward it is useful to consider the Clarity Act, which states that a province’s constitutional status can change if voters give a clear answer to a clear question. This was done to create a transparent structure for any future Quebec referendum. If that structure can be employed for separation purposes it surely would be appropriate for the less momentous business of amalgamating provinces.
So the Senators, who are untroubled by the need to get re-elected, should be frequent and eloquent advocates. If the idea gains momentum the federal government could hold a referendum, after first getting the Supreme Court to confirm the validity of the process.
Here are ways to make the idea attractive:
- Voters might worry about losing political influence federally. There is probably less to that than people imagine, but make it a non-issue by assuring that the number of MPs and Senators would remain the same.
- Only provinces that voted in favour would be amalgamated. So if, for example, PEI votes no but the other two vote yes, then just Nova Scotia and New Brunswick would join.
- There would be fewer civil servants as a result, but the jobs should be spread around so the proportions don’t change. So, for example, energy, justice, and natural resources might be run out of Fredericton; health and education from Halifax; agriculture, environment, and fisheries out of Charlottetown.
- Amalgamating should ultimately save quite a bit of money but making the transition would be expensive. The federal government should put lots of money on the table to facilitate the transition. An explicit contribution to reducing and equalizing debt would be a nice selling point.
It is a reasonable to question whether the benefits of amalgamation are worth a prolonged battle. But unless the federal government is prepared to make this kind of investment of time and money, the exercise will continue to be academically interesting but ultimately unproductive.
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