Sunday, May 22, 2011

On windows of opportunity

Following up on this morning's post, the usual point made to dismiss the idea of abolishing the Senate is that constitutional change is haaaaard, such that we shouldn't bother proposing any changes which would require it. And based on Canada's constitutional history, that might make for a sound enough argument.

But surely the Harper era has taught us that we can't afford to rely on precedents and conventions to protect us from the Cons' drive to take and hold onto power. And I'd argue that in fact, constitutional change may not be far away.

To see why, keep in mind that there are five provincial elections set to take place this year. And while we should be cautious about putting too much stock in current projections, there's at least a real possibility that we could see both Manitoba and Ontario elect Harper-friendly governments, while the other three provinces maintain their current governments.

So let's ask: what's the worst-case scenario if that scenario comes to pass?

Adding wins for the Manitoba and Ontario PCs to the current small-c conservative governments in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Newfoundland and Labrador, we would see a distinct rightward bent and Harper linkage to provincial governments from seven provinces representing well over half of Canada's population. And that's a highly significant standard, given that it would create an obvious opportunity for Harper to push for changes based on Canada's constitutional amending formula. (Incidentally, that window would face a significant risk of closing in 2013 or sooner when British Columbia holds its next election.)

Of course, there isn't much talk about how the amending formula might apply at the moment - which seems to be based largely on the fact that past constitutional discussions have been premised on an assumption that any change should be supported by at least an attempt at consensus across different jurisdictions and ideologies, rather than an opportunistic government seizing a momentary political alignment to pursue longer-term ideological goals.

But given Harper's pattern of using absolutely every possible angle for partisan and political gain, we can't afford to assume that he'll choose differently if it's possible to rewrite the constitution to his advantage. And he may have enough supportive provinces to impose a narrowly-focused set of constitutional changes (such as, say, adding private property rights to the Charter) without addressing other constitutional grievances or paying much attention to the values of Canada's general public - particularly if nobody else works on raising alternative points of view in the meantime.

What's more, I'm not sure Harper would even expect to pay much of a political price if he did push ahead with constitutional changes. After all, the ideological linkages being pointed out as a matter of federal voting choices would seem fairly consistent with the changes we'd expect Harper to consider. And similarly, the interests which would lead Harper to want to make constitutional changes are generally shared by the provincial governments he'd need onside.

So what should we take away from the prospect of Harper being able to rewrite Canada's constitution toward his own ends? To start with, we should approach this fall's provincial elections with a close eye on what the results might mean for our system of government federally.

But equally importantly, we should recognize that no matter how hard Harper works to lull us to sleep, constitutional change may not be any further away now than an attack on the Cons' political opponents was when they claimed to want to work collaboratively in the fall of 2008. And it's essential both to be aware of the possibility and to work on shaping any change that might be discussed before it's too late.

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