Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Live-blogging the Quebec conference #11

Thursday, October 20, 1864:

“I desire to ask if the Prince Edward Island delegates will state what their views are on the resolution of last night.” George Brown has built his career on the principle of rep-by-pop, on the equality of voters as the foundation of accountability. He has seen it cemented into the confederation settlement. Now he confronts PEI, which voted no on his rep-by-pop motion last night (and lost, 5 provinces to 1). A paraphrase of Brown’s question might be: “You voted no? WTF?”

The Islanders stand their ground. Though Edward Palmer says he might come around, depending on the financial terms, most of the Island delegates insist they cannot go home with only five seats to share among the three Island counties. But when A.A. Macdonald declares, “We are not bound by the principle of representation by population,” he faces a torrent of disagreement. McCully of Nova Scotia: “The rule of representation by population must be rigid and unyielding.” Fisher of New Brunswick: “I came here convinced that representation by population was settled.” Galt of Quebec: “We cannot defend the action of giving 13,000 [voters] in Prince Edward Island a member where it requires 17,000 in any other province. It would be indefensible.”

The rest of the day, they make rapid progress. They delegate constituency boundaries and election rules to the provinces (at least until the federal parliament acts). They define the life of the federal parliament (five years, and it must meet at least annually). They agree that executive authority shall “be administered according to the well-understood principles of the British Constitution.” Brown, seeing the conference approving one thing after another, seeks agreement that the provincial legislatures shall be without upper houses, but Nova Scotia’s Jonathan McCully, who has a knack for deft interventions on vexed questions, wins agreement for his motion: each province may determine its own constitution. (Brown will get his way in the long run; all the provinces will eventually get along without upper houses.)

They agree that the lieutenant governors will be appointed by the feds – though some doubt the British government will ever yield that patronage power – but even John A. Macdonald declares, “he must be independent of the federal government,” since responsible government principles oblige a lieutenant governor to act on the advice of his provincial advisors. There is a little exchange on the scope of provincial sovereignty here. Brown, normally the apostle of federalism, proposes weak, quasi-municipal structures, but fellow reformer McCully underlines the vital point: the provinces must be responsible governments, with executives accountable to legislatures representing the people.

They break at ten p.m. tonight. Not a bad days’ work, unless you are an Islander and want to see your province in confederation. (The Islanders also achieve their point in the long run. About a decade after confederation, Canadian politicians will start hedging on rep-by-pop, at least at the margins. Today several deviations from the principle are built into the constitution.)
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