CANADA has lurched into a constitutional crisis, thanks to a political brawl over an unpopular new tax. The last few days have seen an unusual level of brinkmanship. No one is sure whether the Progressive Conservative or the Liberal party will blink; perhaps they both will, political experts say.
``It's a real moment in Canadian history,'' says John Trent, a political science professor at the University of Ottawa. ``There's no federal spokesman who has legitimacy.''
The stage for this drama is the red-carpeted Senate chamber, typically a sleepy backwater of Canadian politics. On one side of the battle, Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney is trying to push through a wide-ranging tax on goods and services to help pay off the federal government's burgeoning debt. Per person, Canadians owe more government debt than Americans do.
The Conservative-dominated House of Commons has already approved the tax. But the Liberal majority in the Senate balked last week. It said the tax and the Conservatives were so unpopular with Canadians that it would try to kill the bill. Such a move is unprecedented in modern Canadian history. Like Britain's House of Lords, Canada's Senate can debate and, at times, delay passage of important money bills, scholars say, but never block them.
To outmaneuver the Liberals, Mr. Mulroney stacked the Senate. Using a little-known provision of the Constitution, he asked for and received permission from the Queen of England to appoint eight additional Senators. He announced their names on Thursday, bringing Conservative seats to 54 in the Senate - two more than the Liberals. Independents hold six seats.
The move was unprecedented. Only once before, more than 100 years ago, did a Canadian prime minister try to use the provision - and the Queen denied his request. The Liberals were so incensed at Mulroney's action that they walked out of the chamber and said they would not return until tomorrow at the earliest.
Each side is claiming the moral high ground. Liberal Senators say their extraordinary action is justified, because allowing the unpopular tax to pass would be undemocratic. Conservatives say the Senate, an appointed body, is usurping the right of the elected government to pass legislation.
Constitutionally speaking, the Conservatives have a more solid case, several scholars say.
``The Senate is not on very high ground,'' says James Mallory, emeritus professor of political science at McGill University. ``The [Conservative] government, after all, is the only elected government we have got. And we have to take it, no matter how much we don't like it.''
The real issue is not the goods-and-services tax, which will be enacted in some form, whether Liberals or Conservatives are in power, says Daniel Tremblay, a political science professor at the University of Quebec at Hull. The issue is political advantage, for which both parties are maneuvering, while also losing credibility.
``I think it's a general malaise of public distrust in our political system,'' says George Neuspiel, professor of law at Carleton University. The bright spot in this political quagmire is that everyone now recognizes that Canada urgently needs constitutional reform, argues Donna Greschner, a law professor at the University of Saskatchewan at Saskatoon. ``The question is: Is it too late?''
Since the summer, the Mulroney government has lurched from one constitutional crisis to another. In June, its effort to reform the Constitution to accommodate Quebec's demands - the so-called Meech Lake accords - fell apart. It foundered because provincial Indian leaders could not go along with reforms that recognized Quebec's distinct society, but ignored their own. Quebec has since adopted a go-it-alone approach, dealing with the federal government, but refusing to confer with other provinces on legislative matters. A clash between police and armed Mohawk Indians outside Montreal in July pushed native claims to the top of the nation's agenda. The Indians want to establish their sovereignty - a concept the government says would require big constitutional changes for which there is no consensus.
Now the tax crisis has brought Canada face-to-face with the need to reform the Senate.
``The controversy over the Canadian Constitution is a controversy over the Canadian spirit,'' Mr. Greschner says. Should Canada adopt the British model wholeheartedly, stripping the Senate of real power and turning it into a House of Lords? Or should it adopt the United States model, making the Senate representative of regional interests and a counterweight?
Greschner wants the latter, saying western and eastern provinces have been politically dominated by Ontario and Quebec, Canada's two largest provinces.
``No one knows where the political forces will go, because the political forces themselves don't know,'' Professor Trent says.