Greens Seeing Red: The Star

I’m pretty sure “red/green” puns have jumped the shark and should now be filed under any headline having to do with Kermit’s observations on how easy being green isn’t, but I’m not going to file a complaint or anything. From today’s Toronto Star:


NDP Leader Jack Layton‘s dalliance with the Tories on the issue of Senate reform is raising eyebrows among Green party members.

They wonder what happened to Layton’s insistence in the last election that bringing in proportional representation should be a top priority for the minority Parliament. Proportional representation is a voting system that gives seats in proportion to the parties’ total popular vote across the nation.

But when Harper and Layton talked recently about parliamentary reform, it was the Senate – not proportional representation – that was Layton’s priority. Layton is proposing a national referendum on the future of the Senate and Harper offered his tentative support for the idea.

Yesterday, Layton was in Calgary to “shore up the support of Western Canadians in the NDP’s bid to hold a referendum on the future of the Senate.”

So what about proportional representation?

“Since Parliament can realistically only deal with one democratic reform issue at a time, Mr. Layton’s out-of-nowhere proposal to abolish the Senate is at odds with the NDP’s traditional support for reforming our voting system,” Chris Tindal, the Green party’s democratic reform advocate, said in a statement. “What has happened to his priorities and his promises?”

9 thoughts on “Greens Seeing Red: The Star

  1. I can’t say what Jack Layton’s priorities are. But a case can be made that Senate abolition would make electoral reform easier.

    It’s very hard to get a more representative electoral system without more representatives. If you want MMP federally (with open regional lists this time), the Law Commission model kept the same number of MPs but made 33% “at-large” meaning ridings are 50% bigger. That would be unacceptable in Northern Ontario and at least 40% of southern Ontario. If you want STV, which works fine in Northern Ireland with 20,000 people per MLA, then you want seven-seater districts for the Greens to get decent representation, and ridings are now not just 50% bigger, but 700% bigger. Yet in Ontario’s recent referendum even political scientists were nervous of saying “look, by most standards Ontario needs 200 MPPs, with such a tiny house you end up with only three back-bench MPPs in the governing caucus” — which is just what we have today. Although most voters didn’t understand MMP, and their biggest concern was closed province-wide lists, some voters said their main objection was adding 22 more MPPs.

    The easiest way to expand the House of Commons would be to abolish the Senate and then add 100 MPs.

    No, I’m not suggesting the issues be linked. Of course electoral reformers can advocate a fair voting system while advocating an elected Senate, or while advocating no change in the Senate because it’s easier to change the voting system (no constitutional amendment is required) than to change the Senate. Fair Vote Canada has never taken much interest in the Senate for that reason.

    But it might be nice.

  2. Mr. Layton’s out-of-nowhere proposal to abolish the Senate is at odds with the NDP’s traditional support for reforming our voting system,” Chris Tindal, the Green party’s democratic reform advocate, said in a statement. “What has happened to his priorities and his promises?”

    Chris, this is a completely false statement. Senate abolition has been NDP policy for 70 years. It isn’t “out of nowhere” at all. I agree with the commenter above, it is in no way “at odds” with electoral reform. Abolishing the undemocratic Senate is a very good first step on the road to a reformed H of C. What I can’t understand is why the Greens are wasting their time defending an unelected retirement home for Liberal hacks. I don’t believe that in their heart of hearts Green supporters want the place to exist any more than the NDP. So, why oppose its abolition?

  3. Wilf — It sounds like you’re proposing that senate reform and voting reform be dealt with simultaneously, which could have some positive results. I don’t disagree, which is why I’ve said we need a Citizens’ Assembly to explore all options. Abolishing the senate first and then, only afterwards saying “ok, now let’s add another 100 MPs” seems extremely unlikely to succeed. And, as you know, Fair Vote Canada has been clear in saying that senate reform should only be dealt with after we fix our voting system.

    Greg: I’m not saying the policy itself is “out of nowhere,” but the sudden announcement that this is now the democratic reform priority for the NDP, coupled with the specific proposal for a referendum to be held simultaneously with the next federal election, is. As I’ve argued in several posts over the last week, abolishing the senate in the absence of a fair voting system or a full appreciation for the function that it plays is an extremely dangerous idea. Are the NDP really comfortable with the prospect of a majority Conservative government that received only 40% of the vote and is unchecked by an upper house?

    “Why oppose its abolition,” you ask? If it were not for the committee on agriculture about 6 or 7 years ago, holding hearings on Bovine Growth Hormone, Monsanto would have had its way and succeeded in getting BGH registered in Canada. The strongest advocate to stop the Garrison Diversion version 2 (Devil’s Lake) was Senator Janis Johnson from Manitoba. The senate produced the important Sparrow report on soil erosion before anyone else was paying attention. They reported on the threat to the Boreal forest before our elected politicians had noticed anything was wrong (they were too busy playing for votes, no doubt). Senator Joyce Fairbairn has worked tirelessly on Canadian literacy and has made a very positive impact.

    Further, appearing on CBC radio’s “The House” this weekend Jack Layton had to explain why the NDP has recently used the senate to help it get things done, while simultaneously claiming that the senate is useless. (He didn’t do a very good job or reconciling that apparent contradiction.) Our parliamentary upper and lower house system is an extremely complex network of interrelated components. You may want to do some more research into what role the senate actually plays (and has played throughout history) and how it relates to the rest of the mechanics of government before you rush to kill it.

  4. Thanks for the commentary Chris. Some people have suggested that Canadians are not ready for electoral reform as evidenced by failures in Ont and BC so that a more realistic interim step would be addressing the Senate which politicians care about but the general public not so much. This seems a rather defeatist approach to the cause of electoral reform and personally I’m against Senate reform which merely shifts power from one side to the other, in this case from Liberal to Conservative as Harper is intent on. If we could have Greens and NDP members in the Senate and stop it from being a pawn for the larger parties then that would make more sense. The focus seems to be too much on crushing the Liberals rather than on how can we engage and involve Canadians in the bigger dialogue on how to improve the system to make it better for voters not just better for the strategy games of politicians.

  5. So Chris, the fact that the Senate is unelected is completely ok with you? Is that Green Party policy? Just because the Senate has done some things that you agree with does not override the fact that it is an unelected body. For someone who aspires to elected office, I find it disturbing you have such a cavalier attitude toward democracy.

  6. Chris, you’re correct that Fair Vote Canada has said the House should be dealt with first. But we kept the door open to Senate reform, since some democratic reformers like the idea, and we didn’t want to tell the Harper government that their plan for a Senate elected by STV was a bad idea.

    So our last statement July 10, 2006 was:

    “1. Fair voting systems (some version of PR) should be used for elections that create any legislative body at any level of government. FPTP has no place in a modern democracy.

    2. We commend any government for moving forward on reforming the core democratic institutions in the Canadian political system.

    3. At the federal level, the first and most urgent priority is beginning a citizen-driven process to determine the best electoral system for electing MPs. Job one is to create a truly representative House of Commons and legitimate majority government.

    4. Consideration of Senate reform or abolition should be addressed after citizens have determined how their MPs are elected.

    5. Parliament should immediately introduce legislation for a national Citizens’ Assembly on Electoral Reform. At the very latest, the following timetable for electoral reform should be adopted:

    – a national CA in 2007-2008
    – a year of public education and debate
    – a referendum with the October 19, 2009 election (if an election is held on this date)
    – implementation of the new voting system by 2013.”

    So, if Senate reform stalls, is Senate abolition a reasonable step? Fair Vote Canada has never stated a position on that point.

  7. @Greg

    Greg, are you just trying to pick a fight? Chris was pretty clear that he’s open to senate reform if it’s a part of overall electoral reform. He’s also clear that to simply abolish the senate without any other reform would be very dangerous – and given reasons why. That doesn’t in any way imply that he’s perfectly happy with it as it is (unelected and all that) – just that this specific alternative would be worse. That’s not hypocritical, it’s reasonable and realistic. The fact that something isn’t ideal doesn’t mean that any change (including abolition) would automatically make it better.

    I would put forward that your attitude is the cavalier, since you are giving no consideration to the effect of senate abolition on the powers of an “elected” House which operates under an extremely disproportional electoral system and a deeply dysfunctional parliamentary system.

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