Canada returns to the constitution? The new government’s agenda for constitutional reform

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Canada’s federal election on October 19 returned to power a Liberal government with a wide-ranging programme for constitutional reform that touches on the electoral system, parliament and relations with the provinces. David Brown offers an overview of this agenda, which includes several reforms introduced or discussed in the UK in recent years.

The election of a Liberal government with a solid majority opens a new chapter in Canada’s enduring fascination with its constitution. The party’s election platform includes an impressive range of promises that touch on the operations of the constitution – many of them intended to remedy or undo measures taken by the outgoing Conservative government led by Stephen Harper – although it is more cautious on the larger structural issues lurking below the surface. Evoking the ‘sunny ways’ of Wilfrid Laurier, a Liberal predecessor, incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is offering a change in tone and style in the day-to-day running of national institutions. Determined to be his own man he is, however, moving cautiously in approaching the larger constitutional reform stage that preoccupied his father, Pierre Elliott Trudeau, in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Canadian constitution, likes its British parent, is a work in progress. The original federal Constitution was enacted in 1867, the year that Bagehot published The English Constitution. The British North America Act (now the Constitution Act), neatly resonates with his distinction between the dignified and the efficient features of the Constitution. The written Canadian Constitution provides for the Crown, Privy Council, parliament, the courts and parallel institutions at the provincial level (along with lists of enumerated powers of the two levels of government),  cumulatively providing the enduring framework within which the real business of governance is transacted. These efficient elements, including the Prime Minister, Cabinet, public service and the day-to-day operations of parliament and the federal system, emanate solely from the laconic observation in the Preamble to the Constitution Act that Canada has ‘a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom.’ Changing the written Constitution involves use of a demanding amending formula that in several areas requires unanimity among the federal and provincial governments. The unwritten is the realm of constitutional convention.

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