Senate Reform

“Has Jack Layton lost his mind,” asked someone on a federal Green mailing list yesterday. “The world is slowly falling apart and Layton wants to abolish the Senate? Does he think he’s Tony Blair?”

“Actually,” replied someone else who knows him, “he does.”

The first commenter was responding to Layton’s decision to resurrect his party’s desire to abolish the senate, apropos of nothing aside from an impending federal election and a weakened Liberal party. That’s what the second commenter was referencing. Tony Blair was able to take a left-wing party from perpetual fringe to government, and Layton thinks he can do the same. The end goal of yesterday’s announcement isn’t to abolish the senate, it’s to abolish the Liberal opposition.

It’s another example of the fact that Layton is willing to work more closely with Stephen Harper than any other leader, so long as it’s good for his party. In doing so, he’s losing sight of what’s good for the country.

Abolishing the senate is a popular idea. It has at least some support across Canada, including official support from four provincial governments (British Columbia, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Manitoba). The current cynicism of Canadians about all things political–coupled with their minimal understanding of what the senate actually does–makes abolishing almost anything to do with politicians sound like a good idea. In that way, it makes good political sense for Layton to be pursuing it. And it’s absolutely the wrong solution.

Today, there’s a report that Stephen Harper would support Layton’s proposal, even though he favours an elected senate. Late last year when the prime minister first started floating those ideas, I said that issues as important and fundamental as the mechanics of our democracy couldn’t be dictated on a whim by any one person, let alone a government that’s received the lowest percentage of the vote of any government in our country’s history. Our democratic systems, by definition, can only be legitimately altered by people, not just politicians.

In this way Layton is right to at least call for a referendum, but he’s wrong to frame the issue so narrowly. Clearly our senate, like other aspects of our democracy, is in need of reform. But to simply call for its abolition without even exploring what that reform would look like and how it could strengthen our democracy is lazy, reactionary, and wrongheaded. (Not to mention that Layton’s proposal is also unconstitutional, since even with a referendum the federal government cannot abolish the senate without the support of the provinces.)

Instead, a wiser move would be to form a national Citizens’ Assembly to explore what options we have. They might consider the following possibilities:

  • Should we have term limits?
  • Should senators be elected?
    • If so, what voting system should we use to elect them?
  • How should we balance the need for representation by population with the need for representation by geography?
  • How does the senate fit into the bigger picture? What are senators doing currently that’s of value to our Parliamentary system, what are they doing that they shouldn’t be, and what other roles could they play?

And yes, that group could also consider if abolition was the answer. But to leap to that conclusion without understanding the important role that the senate currently plays in the complex fabric of our inherited British Parliamentary system is simplistic and dangerous.

Finally, this shouldn’t even be the priority within the world of democratic reform, let alone the national agenda. NDP supporters I talk to are increasingly confused as to why Layton seems to make more noise about things like ATM fees (and now this) instead of speaking out more often on climate change, the widening gap between our richest and our poorest, the multitude of economic threats posed by the imploding American economy, etc.

So, has Layton “lost his mind?” Depends on your perspective, I suppose. To many, he’s playing smart politics by trying to drive a wedge in-between him and the Liberals and by working closely with the Conservatives. To others he, like so many other Parliamentarians, has lost sight of what really matters and the good that he could be doing. As you’ve gathered, I tend to fall into the second camp. This is no time to play games for votes. Let’s please try to focus.

6 thoughts on “Senate Reform

  1. Tony Blair was able to take his party from perpetual fringe to government,

    Um, what are you talking about? Labour had been in power for a big chunk of the 20th century. Blair helped bring the party out of its post Thatcherite slump, but he was no Moses.

    Yep, you’re right. Thanks. -CT

  2. Chris, to say that the NDP is not talking about widening gap between the rich and the poor is quite misleading. It was the NDP that voted against Harper’s mini-budget because of the effect that the GST cut would have in a governments abilities to help reduce that gap and because the NDP wanted to see more income tax relief for middle and lower income Canadians, unlike the Liberals who sat on their hands to avoid having to make a tough decision. Mr. Dion and his crew have done much more to boost this Government than anyone by far.

    As I have said on my blog today about this, Canadians are able to handle more than one issue at a time, and there will never be a perfect time to confront Senate reform. By the way, lets not forget that this has been a policy for the CCF/NDP since 1932, so it’s not like Jack just pulled this out of the air.

  3. Cam is right: Canadians are able to handle more than one issue at a time — and so is a leader who knows what he believes in like Jack Layton.

    On this issue, the NDP has managed to get the Conservatives to come to them. It’s no small feat, and represents a historic modernization of our democracy.

    How are any of the issues we care about advanced by maintaining a $80 million Senate stacked with Liberal and Tory partisans who split their time between Ottawa and corporate boardrooms?

    Short answer: it’s not. Thanks to Jack Layton and the NDP, Canadians will get the final word on the money-wasting Senate.

  4. So Layton wants to remove the checks, balances, and sober second thoughts from the Harper government, or other potential demagogues? All for some populist NDP agenda?
    What about an STV Senate such as Australia?

    Every parliamentary system has some form of Senate, and for good reason. I agree the Senate needs reform. More urgent is reform of our electoral system. Why has the NDP quietly dropped this as an issue?

  5. “But to simply call for its abolition without even exploring what that reform would look like and how it could strengthen our democracy is lazy, reactionary, and wrongheaded.”

    Never mind the fact that Benjamin Franklin was right to that having two equally matched houses makes as much sense as tying two equally matched horses to either end of a buggy and having them both pull. The name of Britain’s two houses, the House of Lords and the House of Commons, should tell you something about way we have a senate in the first place. The purpose of having a House of Lords was to check and balance out the will of common people. One of the main purposes of the Canadian senate and the US senate, which were both modeled after the British system, was to do the same.

    Now granted, the class based nature of the senate has long since been forgotten though and we are left with a corpse destined to provide regional representation. Some believe and you seem to implicitly hold such a position that the regions need more say and an “effective” and “elected” senate is the best way of achieving such a balance between population centers in Eastern Canada and the rest of us. The problem is two fold. First such an argument rests on a false contrast; seats in the House of Commons are supposed to be assigned on a rep by pop basis, but in actuality that is not the case. For example, PEI has a population of 135,851 and has 4 MPs and people in the riding of Oak Ridges Markham has a population of 169, 642 obviously only has 1 MP. In other words, a vote in Oak Ridges Markham has less the 5th the value of a vote cast in Charlottetown. The second reason is that comparing province to province is a perverse misnomer. It is comparing apples to oranges. What one should be comparing is the political resources of people in any two ridings. When one does this it is abundantly clear that people in Canada’s urban centers in particular are getting the short end of the stick and that people living in the less populous regions of the country already have far more clout on a per person basis by virtue of the fact that the provincial and territorial jurisdictions in which they are a member or far less populous. Indeed, PEI and its population of 135,851 and 4 MPs, as a province, has revenue streams available to it that are simply not available to Oak Ridges Markham and its population of 169, 642 and 1 MP. Oak Ridges Markham does not get Federal transfer payments for one. Empowering an X number of PEI senators to represent the interests of 135,851 people while only the equal number of Ontario Senators to represent the interests of 12.1 million Ontarians, as would happen if Canada adopted the intellectual abortion known as a Triple E senate, simply adds insult to injury. It is also grossly undemocratic.

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