It strikes me that Canadians have much to learn from the Irish about how and when to use referenda. Apart from the Quebec referenda, our experience with referenda, as illustrated by the history of referenda in British Columbia, has been totally pragmatic, political and unprincipled. Under legislation unique among Canadian provinces, voters in British Columbia have voted in five referenda since 1991; on a recall and initiative process (1991), on treaty negotiations (2002), on electoral reform (2005 and 2009) and on the Harmonized Sales Tax (2011). Citizens themselves initiated the latter referendum, and forced the provincial government to back away from adopting the Harmonized Sales Tax and to stick with the Provincial Sales Tax as it had promised to do in the prior re-election campaign.
The current Metro Vancouver Transportation and Transit referendum is, in law, only “a plebiscite.” That means it is held at the behest of the provincial government “for advice only.” and is not binding. Christy Clark’s Liberal government made a pre-election promise that she would not allow new municipal “revenue tools” to fund transit for the Greater Vancouver Area except with the approval of local taxpayers. She set the timetable and the conditions for conducting the plebiscite and will use the result (whatever it might be) to justify her own position. That “referendum” ends May 29th, and we will learn the results. Whatever the outcome, there are many (including myself) who think that this transit plebiscite is primarily a political ploy to absolve the provincial government from taking responsibility for decisions their office requires that they make. In my view, using the referendum/plebiscite tool for this purpose is a cop-out.
There is one context, however, where a national referendum in Canada may be appropriate. The Supreme Court of Canada in the Reference re Senate Reform (2014 SCC 32, 2014-04-25) has indicated that the Senate is part and parcel of our Constitution and cannot be changed or abolished except as provided by our own Constitution. Abolition of the Senate requires the consent of the Senate, the House of Commons, and the legislative assemblies of all Canadian provinces. Reform of the Senate, including consultative elections and senatorial term limits, requires consent of the Senate, the House of Commons and the legislative assemblies of at least seven provinces representing half of the population of all the provinces.
If there is an increasing consensus that the Senate should be abolished, or at least reformed, would it not be possible to convene a constitutional convention, draft an appropriate proposal (with a fall-back reform alternative), and put it to a national referendum? Wouldn’t it be refreshing for politicians of all stripes to rise to the occasion and decide, on a principled basis, the future of the Senate? Is it too much to expect all the political parties at both the provincial and the federal levels, in both the Commons and the Senate, to agree that they would vote as determined by the majority of each province in a referendum?
Focusing solely on the Senate, and on a question (or questions) to be put to the public, would make a constitutional convention manageable. If abolition is not successful, maybe reforms can be achieved. At least, a referendum would focus the discussion and maybe, as has been the case in Ireland, once the referendum were held, put the issue to rest. Perhaps, in the upcoming federal election, we should consider which of the leaders, and which of the parties, would best inspire and lead such a constitutional convention. Lingering issues which seem insolvable can be addressed with the political will to do so. Ireland has done it for divorce and now for marriage equality. Surely Canadians have the political maturity to address our own constitutional issues.