(Policy papers 2012-2013)
Canadians are all too familiar with the “Who, me?” routine of our leaders. What we really need from governments is cooperation: shared efforts to address issues of national significance. A Council of Canadian Governments, modeled on a successful Australian initiative, could build a better federalism for the 21st century, without wading into the swamp of constitutional amendment.
Les Canadiens ne connaissent que trop bien la routine de nos dirigeants, qui aiment à répéter « qui, moi ? ». Ce dont nous avons vraiment besoin de la part de nos gouvernements, c’est de la coopération : des efforts communs pour s’atteler à des problèmes nationaux. Ce qui pourrait aider à bâtir un meilleur fédéralisme au 21ème siècle, c’est un Conseil des gouvernements canadiens, basé sur la modèle réussi de l’initiative australienne, et qui permettrait de ne pas avoir à entrer dans la voie des réformes constitutionnelles.
Canada was designed as a federation, with some powers given to the central government and others given to the provinces and territories. The Fathers of Confederation may have imagined peaceful coexistence and even harmonious cooperation among the partners as we built our nation, but the relationship that has evolved more often runs to finger-pointing, horse-trading, and stalemate, punctuated by the occasional backroom deal.
In the 20th century many national issues were taken up at First Ministers’ Conferences, formal closed-door meetings between the prime minister, the provincial premiers, and the territorial leaders. In 2003, the provinces and territories created the Council of the Federation, aiming to form a united front in their negotiations with Ottawa. But they have succeeded neither in consolidating their positions nor in contributing more effectively to advancing the national interest. Now the Council of the Federation is best known for talking about the need for more talk.
The provinces and territories have widely varying interests and legitimate concerns that deserve respect. Could the Senate become a player in more fruitful management of intergovernmental relations? After all, at Confederation, the Senate was created explicitly as a non-elected body to represent these regional concerns, as well as to provide “sober second thought” on the decisions of the House of Commons.
While some Senate committees have performed invaluable work over the years, the Senate in its current form has contributed little to addressing regional tensions or good national governance. For one thing, the western provinces are seriously underrepresented in it. And as an appointed body, the Senate unquestionably lacks the democratic legitimacy so critical today. The vast majority of Canadians now agree that the reform or abolition of the Canadian Senate is overdue. Throughout the democratic world, appointed upper houses have been made elective or shuffled off to the side of the political stage. But meaningful Senate reform would require formal constitutional change, which is not a practical option today and may not be so for some time.
Australia has a model that Canada could follow to create a more collegial and collaborative federalism without wading into the swamp of constitutional amendment. The 10-member Council of Australian Governments consists of the prime minister, the state and territorial leaders, and the head of the Australian Local Government Association. Established in 1992, the Council fosters cooperation on policies and issues of national importance. It is generally well accepted and has enabled Australia to eliminate much of the inter-level wrangling with which Canadians are so familiar.
A Council of Canadian Governments would be chaired by the prime minister and would include provincial premiers, territorial leaders, the head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and a representative of Aboriginal leadership. It would not be a formal part of the legislative process, nor would it have any governmental powers or constitutional status. The Council’s role would be to initiate, develop, and monitor the implementation of policy reforms that are of national significance and require action by all Canadian governments (and would supplement First Ministers’ Conferences).
The focus on collaboration would bring more direction and coherence to governance. Full information about Council meetings, agendas, proposed initiatives, agreements, and so forth would be made public. Council meetings could be open to the public when appropriate, and the Council could call on experts to present information. The high degree of transparency would permit Canadians to demand much greater accountability from their leaders for progress on matters requiring national attention and action, and to engage more constructively in the political process. The provincial and federal legislatures would still be accountable for any laws or regulations they make that follow up on the Council’s work.
Many policy areas that have impacts in more than one jurisdiction would benefit from getting coordinated attention and effort, leading to coherent national responses. Obvious examples are criminal justice, environment and energy, transportation and infrastructure, federal-provincial financial relations, health and safety regulations, interprovincial barriers to employment and trade, employment insurance, health care, and pensions. The Council could also be a forum where provincial and municipal governments make constructive contributions when our national government negotiates international treaties and trade agreements.
Establishing a Council of Canadian Governments to promote a more collegial and collaborative federalism would acknowledge the 21st-century reality that most issues of concern to Canadians inevitably involve more than one level of government. The Council would provide the opportunity for our political leaders to dial back the partisan rhetoric and cooperate seriously with their counterparts for the benefit of all Canadians.