Bob Rae
3 min

About that abolition debate

Today, the NDP will table a motion that includes proposing a referendum to see what Canadians think about abolishing the Senate. It also proposes establishing a committee to figure out how to get proportional representation in place. Both of those ideas are wholly problematic (and to a certain extent dubious when it comes to claims of being “more democratic”). Of course, the government decided to play a last-minute game of switcheroo by changing the day of the motion from yesterday to today (meaning it’ll get a whole two hours of debate instead of six). For the purposes of this piece, that is neither here nor there.

It should first be pointed out – as Bob Rae did on Monday – that the NDP’s decision to focus on these issues now is pretty telling. Given the Oda affair, In & Out, the government’s mishandling of the evacuation of Canadians from Libya and government secrecy, one is forced to wonder. Rae says they’re dancing – playing for time while they decide whether or not they’re going to prop the government up to avoid an election. It’s hard not to see his point, considering that abolishing the Senate is not an issue that we really need to concern ourselves with; it's never going to happen as it’ll take the unanimous agreement of the provinces, regardless of a referendum. It’s also curious that it looks as though Layton is trying to brandish his democratic credentials before he possibly props up a government that has been undermining our system of parliamentary democracy for the past five years.

One should also cast an eye to what the NDP is proposing. Abolish the Senate? It’s not like the upper chamber hasn't done anything useful or amended any severely flawed bills that passed the Commons out of partisan consideration (for example – the Federal Accountability Act, which was full of flaws and loopholes, was rammed through by the Conservatives with the help of the NDP because Pat Martin was obsessed with sticking it to the Liberals). So this would what? Leave it up to the courts to review flawed bills, when most of this stuff now gets caught by the Senate? Yeah, that’s an efficient use of resources when our courts are already clogged.

It’s also disingenuous to go about proposing a referendum without acknowledging that this proposal is going to mean reopening the Constitution and require the unanimous consent of the provinces. Oh, but a referendum will help pressure provincial governments, Layton insists. Really? It’s not a binding referendum, and I’m sure support will be higher in some provinces than in others, which will doubtlessly mean that some provincial governments will be more vested in keeping the status quo. This especially applies to the Atlantic provinces; the current construction of the Senate was a precondition of Confederation since they needed stronger representation in the upper chamber to help counterbalance the fact that they would be swamped by the representation-by-population in the Commons. That kind of protection would be stripped because Jack Layton and the NDP don’t understand the history or function of the Senate.

The Senate does good work. I’ve even had NDP MPs tell me this (before they launch into a convoluted and, dare I say, unicorn-filled discussion about how they would supposedly replicate that good work in a Commons reformed by proportional representation, but that’s a much longer story for another day). It seems that because it’s an appointed body, somehow its usefulness is negated. Never mind the very fact that not having to electioneer is a big part of why the Senate can do good work. Funny, the Supreme Court isn’t elected either, but few people dismiss it as an appointed body.

The fact is, despite all of these rhetorical claims about how everyone would prefer this “antiquated institution” to be abolished, more people would support it if they actually knew what it does and what its actual function is (other than being the punching bag of the Commons). If anyone really does care to learn more, I can recommend a good book or two that can open your eyes about the institution and show you what some of those reform proposals would really mean.

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