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Meech headaches serve as current-day warning

Meech headaches serve as current-day warningDemonstrators show their support for the Meech Lake Accord as the premiers leave the conference centre breaking off for the day at the constitutional talks in Ottawa in a June 6, 1990 file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

OTTAWA - Newly released cabinet documents detailing the agonizing and ultimately fruitless efforts to secure the Meech Lake accord serve as a cautionary reminder to current political leaders who would reopen the Constitution to deal with the Senate.

The minutes of Brian Mulroney's cabinet meetings during the first half of 1990 show how difficult it is to keep constitutional talks tightly focused and to get a deal ratified, even if initially approved by all first ministers.

"The Meech Lake accord had been a noble initiative which had become sullied in the process of ratification," Mulroney told his ministers, according to the minutes of a May 22 meeting.

"The five demands originally put by Quebec had become a shopping list for the other provinces, and, as a result, the people of Quebec were unlikely to mourn the demise of the accord."

The minutes were obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

Meech would have constitutionally recognized Quebec as a distinct society, among other things. Its death on June 23, 1990, triggered a crisis that ultimately resulted in a nail-biting, near-death experience for the country in the 1995 referendum on Quebec independence.

Mulroney tried once more to secure Quebec's endorsement of the Constitution with the Charlottetown accord, which broadened the scope of the constitutional changes to accommodate other provinces' demands. It was soundly defeated in a 1992 nationwide referendum.

Since then, no prime minister has dared to reopen the constitutional can of worms.

Norman Spector, secretary to the cabinet for federal-provincial affairs during the Meech drama, said the newly released cabinet minutes reminded him that constitutional reform is difficult and complex.

"And now everybody's afraid to touch the issue."

However, NDP Leader Tom Mulcair says he's prepared to relaunch constitutional talks to abolish the Senate. And although Prime Minister Stephen Harper has said he's not interested in constitutional wrangling, he too has threatened to abolish the unelected upper chamber if his efforts to unilaterally reform it are stymied.

Abolition would require a constitutional amendment, but it's not clear whether it would require approval by at least seven provinces or all 10. Harper has asked the Supreme Court to advise on the amending formula required for abolition and for his proposals to create a "consultative election" process for choosing senators and to impose term limits on them.

Former Quebec premier Jean Charest, a key player during the Meech saga, is bemused by all the talk about Senate reform and abolition, as though either could be accomplished easily.

"I've said this to the prime minister: We all know that if there's going to be significant Senate reform, it has to happen with the provinces at the table," Charest said in an interview.

"So when I hear all these speeches about how they're going to abolish the Senate, you sort of want to say, 'Get a reality check.'"

Reopening the Constitution would be particularly risky if the separatist Parti Quebecois win a majority in the April 7 election in Quebec. But even if Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard were to win, it would be no cakewalk.

Couillard has warned there's no way he'd negotiate Senate reform without also putting Quebec's constitutional demands back on the table.

Should any political leader be prepared to forge ahead despite the risks, Charest said useful lessons can be drawn from the Meech experience, which was the first test of the constitutional amending formula adopted in 1982. Under the formula, it was clear the extensive Meech changes demanded provincial unanimity.

He advises the government to involve federal and provincial opposition leaders, not just first ministers, in negotiations, thereby preventing "anyone trying to use this as a political tool" in elections that may be called before the deal can be ratified.

In the case of Meech, cross-partisan co-operation might have averted the situation where premiers elected after the deal was hatched were opposed to the accord.

"If you're dealing with these kind of constitutional changes or changes that are relevant to national unity, it's much worth the effort to broaden the tent," said Charest, who, as a Conservative MP, chaired the eleventh-hour, special Meech committee tasked with trying to mollify hold-out provinces.

If a deal can be reached, Charest said the Meech experience shows it should be ratified quickly by the requisite federal and provincial governments. In other words, don't let three-year clock run down.

"In politics, if you allow these things to linger, there will inevitably be something, somewhere, somebody to find something wrong with it," he said.

"When Meech started, it was all very positive, it was a moment of grace. Only we failed to recognize at the time ... that to be successful in this kind of an operation we needed to execute diligently."

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