Governments can get along and get things done

GPC 2015 platform background paper

Canadians are all too familiar with the different levels of government arguing with one another.  What we really need from governments is cooperation and reasonable compromise: shared efforts to address issues of national significance. A Council of Canadian Governments, modelled on a successful Australian initiative, could build a better federalism for the 21st century without the need for constitutional change. The Senate must be reformed in the next Parliament; a referendum mechanism must be part of the constitutional reform process.


Canada is a federation with some powers given to the federal government and others given to the provinces and territories. The Fathers of Confederation may have imagined peaceful coexistence and even harmonious cooperation among these partners as we built our nation, but the relationship that has evolved more often runs to finger-pointing and stalemates, punctuated by the occasional backroom deal.  In addition, we have spectacularly failed to develop a constructive partnership with Indigenous peoples, who continue to live in shameful conditions that are utterly unacceptable in a 21st-century Canada.

In the 20th century, the First Ministers’ Conferences emerged to allow formal meetings between the Prime Minister, the provincial Premiers, and the territorial leaders. In 2003, the provinces and territories created the Council of the Federation to form a united front in their negotiations with Ottawa. Yet this has not helped to consolidate their positions, nor has it advanced the national interest.

The provinces and territories have widely varying interests and legitimate concerns that deserve respect. However, now municipal governments and the overdue expansion of a new Indigenous order of government are increasing in significance and also drawing more and more public attention.

How can we modernize our federal structure to alleviate these intergovernmental tensions and serve Canadians more efficiently? Some think that the Senate could play a role in this capacity. After all, at Confederation the Senate was created explicitly as a non-elected body to represent regional concerns, as well as to provide “sober second thought” on the decisions of the House of Commons.

The Green Party believes that this is not the answer. While some Senate committees perform valuable work, the Senate has become a hyper-partisan body contributing little to addressing regional tensions or supporting good national governance. For one thing, the western provinces are seriously underrepresented in it. Furthermore, as an appointed body, the Senate unquestionably lacks the democratic legitimacy so essential to good government. In the wake of the recent expense scandals, 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.

The Green Party agrees with Canadians that the existing Senate cannot continue in its present form. The Senate must be reformed during the next Parliament. A comprehensive proposal for a new Senate, possibly elected, with equitable regional distribution and appropriate powers must be developed and subsequently approved by Canadians in a national referendum. (While a referendum is not constitutionally required, an important precedent was set with the holding of the Charlottetown Referendum of 1992.) The Green Party believes that sooner rather than later Canadians must formally revise the constitutional amending formula to add an official referendum mechanism in order to ensure that the people of Canada approve of all alterations to the Constitution. The existing formula, which only requires votes in provincial legislatures to enact such amendments, is horribly anachronistic.

In the meantime, we urgently need to take action to get all governments and Canadians working together again.

Australia has a model that Canada could follow to create a more collegial and collaborative federalism without the need for constitutional change. 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-jurisdictional wrangling with which Canadians are so familiar.

A Council of Canadian Governments, chaired by the Prime Minister, would include provincial Premiers, territorial leaders, representatives of the municipal order of government, and representatives of Indigenous leadership. It would not be a formal part of the legislative process, nor would it have any governmental powers or constitutional status; instead, it would supplement First Ministers’ Conferences. 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.

The focus on collaboration would bring more direction and coherence to governance. The Council would be transparent. Full information about its meetings, agendas, proposed initiatives, agreements, and so forth would be made public. Council meetings could be open to the public, giving them access to experts invited to participate. This high degree of transparency would permit Canadians to demand much greater accountability from our 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 be accountable for any laws or regulations they made that followed up on the Council’s work.

Many policy areas are of mixed jurisdiction and need coordinated attention and effort leading to coherent national responses. Just a few obvious examples of such governmental overlap which require attention include national strategies to deal with climate change, interprovincial barriers to employment and trade, access to affordable housing, a national pharmacare program, a national dementia strategy, and a national disability insurance scheme. In addition to addressing such issues, the Council of Canadian Governments could also be a forum where other levels of government made 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 acknowledges the 21st-century reality that most issues of concern to Canadians inevitably involve more than one level of government. Policy coherence across all levels of governmental jurisdiction would ensure that all tax dollars – municipal, provincial, or federal – worked together for shared goals, whether to address climate change, prosperity and innovation, health, poverty or unemployment.  The Council would provide the opportunity for our political leaders to dispense with the partisan rhetoric and cooperate seriously with their counterparts for the benefit of all Canadians.