Category Archives: ndp

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.

Elizabeth Buys Dinner With Jack

As you know, Elizabeth May has been trying to get a meeting with Jack Layton, but to no avail. She’s of the opinion that politicians need to work together to address the climate crisis, and that it would be helpful for the leaders who want to take action to discuss how to do that in the face of a Prime Minister who doesn’t.

So, last Saturday night at the parliamentary press gallery dinner when Layton (who was not actually on the agenda) stepped up to the microphone and announced that he was auctioning off a dinner date with himself and his wife Olivia Chow for charity, Elizabeth saw her window.

Mr. Layton auctioned off dinner for four with himself and Ms. Chow to raise money for a scholarship in memory of Dennis Bueckert, a respected Canadian Press environment and science reporter who died suddenly this year.

Ms. May said Monday she had already planned to make a $1,000 donation to the scholarship as she and Mr. Bueckert were old friends, so the auction was perfect.

“I decided I’ll go as high as $1,000,” she said. “If anyone goes higher than that, I can’t afford it.”

Funny thing: no one went higher. Oh, and another funny thing: she plans to invite Stephane Dion as her guest, so that they can all sit around the same table together. “That would make a very interesting dinner,” she said. “Who knows, something good could come of it.” Let’s hope.

That’s assuming, of course, that Layton actually honors his commitment:

Polls and election results suggest the Greens pose an electoral danger to the NDP, and Mr. Layton seems unwilling to do anything to lend legitimacy to Ms. May or her party. At the end of the auction, Mr. Layton did not even acknowledge that Ms. May was the winner

…A spokesman for Mr. Layton, Karl Belanger, did not sound keen on the May-Dion-Layton dinner.

“We didn’t talk about who this person might be,” he said. “She won the auction, so we’ll see, but co-ordinating the schedule of three leaders . . . two leaders is already tricky. Three leaders could be even more tricky. But you know, it looks like the Liberal party would be well-represented at that dinner, since she’s the Liberal party candidate in Central Nova.”

Smooth, Karl. And classy too.

Did Someone Order A Green Surprise?

In reporting the looming Toronto Centre by-election (Bill Graham’s resignation became effective one week ago today), there appears to be a temptation to portray this as a two-way race between the Liberal and the Conservative. (For example, this story published yesterday by the Ottawa Citizen makes no mention of either myself or the NDP candidate.)

That analysis is understandable, since those are the two largest parties at the national level. However, in the context of Toronto Centre, it’s faulty. Recent election results, as well as the current political climate, tell a different story.

The first-time Conservative candidate, Mark Warner, is trying to convince people that he has a shot at beating Liberal Bob Rae because, “if you go on the Elections Canada website and go back to the 1880s, you will see that this riding historically goes with the federal government.” It’s hard to know if he meant to say ‘1980s’ or was misquoted. Either way, things have changed since then. Actually, two very specific things: the demographic/psychographic make-up of Toronto Centre, and the Conservative Party of Canada.

While Mark’s right that our riding used to support Red-Tories, voters in Toronto Centre have shown little appetite for the Alliance-Conservative party of Stephen Harper. Mark’s assured me that he’s a progressive, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, but he unfortunately belongs to a party that has gutted women’s programs, removed “women’s equality” from the federal government’s mandate, eliminated successful environmental programs, refused to declare that water is a human right, blocked the international UN declaration of the rights of Indigenous peoples, more closely aligned our foreign policy with the United States (including, when in opposition, pressuring the government to join the war in Iraq and criticizing them for trying secure justice for Maher Arar), dismissed the Geneva conventions, attempted to eliminate equal marriage, turned its back on Kyoto, turned its back on Kelowna, turned its back on Atlantic Canada…

Sorry, got off on a bit of a rant there. Point is, if Mark wants to make this Alliance-Conservative party progressive, he’s got his work cut-out for him. Especially considering that not even cabinet ministers in Harper’s government are allowed to speak their minds, let-alone back-bench MPs.

In reality, the Conservative candidate in the last election came a distant third, earning only 18% of the vote. In the vote before that, they got only 14%. The NDP, while still a distant second, were comfortably ahead of the Conservatives with 24% in each of the last two federal elections. So if you’re only going to talk about two parties in Toronto Centre, the NDP should be one of them.

And yet, it would be just as unlikely for the NDP to win this riding. For one, they’ve never done it—not once. Secondly, videos posted to the candidate’s website show his supporters (including one previous NDP candidate and two current elected NDP MPPs) mocking “Rosedale Bobby.” They therefore seem to have no interest in reaching out to the people of Rosedale, to put it mildly. That’s a big chunk of the riding to just cast off, and probably means that the best they can hope for is to remain maxed-out at 24% just as they have in the last two elections, despite having a very good candidate this time around.

The Green Party, on the other hand, is the only party up in the polls since the last federal election. (One poll even had us tied with the NDP nationally.) In Toronto Centre, our result in the last election (when I was also the candidate) was an increase of 48%, far more than that of any other party. Being a fiscally responsible and socially progressive party, we also appeal to a very diverse range of people. We appeal to Bill-Graham-Liberals who aren’t comfortable with Bob Rae, Progressive Conservatives who have lost their party entirely, and NDPers who feel, like so many I’ve talked to, that their party has lost its way, at least for the time being.

Am I predicting a Green win in Toronto Centre? Probably not this time, no. But it’s worth noting that the political landscape in Canada is shifting very quickly. The “Conservative vs. Liberal” dichotomy isn’t what it once was, and the formerly-dismissible Greens are now a serious factor. If there’s one thing we learned in the London North Centre by-election, it’s that Greens should not be underestimated.

Nomination Crashers III & IV

As I write this, I’m aware that third and fourth sequels rarely do justice to the original. (Police Academy and Jaws, I’m looking at you.) Nomination Crashers and Nomination Crashers II were good enough, I probably shouldn’t push it. But, alas, here we are.

This edition of Nomination Crashers is a double-header, because, yes, last Thursday I attended two (very different) Toronto Centre nomination meetings on the same night. The first was the nomination meeting for the provincial Liberals, though I’m told it was actually promoted to Liberals as the “George Smitherman Nomination Meeting.” Hundreds of people filled the Wellesley Community Centre gym to enjoy free catered food (samosas, sausage rolls, pizza, apples, and finally ice cream came around on trays carried by a uniformed wait staff) and watch dancers and other entertainment. I felt a little guilty eating the food, but only a little. No one would want it to go to waste…

As the meeting’s official name suggests, there was (almost) no attempt to pretend this was anything but a coronation. Even the signs behind the stage had George’s face on them, and nominations were declared open just long enough for Bob Rae (why does that name sound familiar?) to nominate George before they were immediately closed again. He then took the stage and, strangely, feigned surprise and speechlessness. His speech didn’t speak to me, so I won’t comment on it further. Though, to be fair, I may have been too distracted by the ice cream.

From there, I biked down the street to the 519 Community Centre where the provincial NDP were having their nomination meeting. Hard to compare the two. On the one hand, the NDP didn’t have any free food, and the juice was being served in extremely tiny paper cups I’ve only ever seen before at dentist offices. On the other hand, it was actually a real nomination meeting. So, you know, hard to compare. There were three women seeking the nomination, including Sandra Gonzalez who was ultimately victorious. She’d previously run against El-Farouk Khaki for the federal nomination, and will make a good candidate. The most entertaining moment of this meeting happened during one of the other contestants’ speeches, when one of their supporters started yelling scripted responses in planned breaks, like “yes sister!” and “preach it!” and “testify!” In case there was any doubt that those passionate outbursts were planned, I later looked over to see that person subtly mouthing the words of the speech along with the contestant.

Again, I met people at both meetings who recognized me and let me know they’d voted for me in the last election, which is interesting.

The nominations of George and Sandra follow the Conservative nomination of Pamela Taylor and the Green Party of Ontario’s nomination of Mike McLean, whose blog is here. The Ontario Provincial election happens on October 10th 2007, concurrent with the referendum on MMP.