“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.