Referendum
4 min

Let’s blow up the Constitution!

Last week, “underdog” NDP leadership
candidate Nathan Cullen released a policy paper on “Improving our democracy.”
But looking at it, one should be terrified by what Cullen is proposing because
of the implications.

To begin with, amidst general anti-Harper
rhetoric, Cullen feels we need proportional representation and wants a
referendum on a) whether to change the voting system, and b) which system we
would prefer instead, giving his own preference for a mixed-member proportional
(MMP) system.

Of course, Cullen falls into the
predictable logical fallacy of treating a general election as one single event
when looking at the distorted average popular support figures rather than the
actual 308 simultaneous elections that actually occur during a general
election. He also falls into the other problematic narrative of
highlighting the supposed added “democracy” of such a system while neglecting
the countered reduction in voter accountability that a system like MMP affords.
Instead of MPs being accountable to voters at the riding level (especially when
it comes to nomination races), they become accountable to the party mechanism
in order to be put onto “lists,” and two-tier MPs are created. As well, within
proportional representation systems, it becomes nearly impossible to throw out
any particular government because the tendency is that they simply shuffle coalition
partners around the edges, not to mention that you never really know what
you’re voting for because the final composition of coalition governments would
mean that party platforms would be virtually meaningless in the compromises
that result after the election was held. But I digress.

Cullen then falls back on the old NDP
chestnut of abolishing the Senate, calling it an “outdated, expensive
institution” that “serves no real purpose.” For that statement alone, Cullen
should be laughed out of the room. Let’s first leave aside the fact that
abolition would require the unanimous consent of every province and territory
in the country, and that’s not going to happen. But on the substance of his
arguments, not only is the Senate actually more cost-effective than the House
of Commons, it is generally a more progressive body than the Commons because
more women and minorities tend to be appointed than are elected, and senators
are far less afraid to deal with otherwise verboten policy discussions than MPs
who fear what their constituents might say. Abolishing it would also do away
with a regional body that counterbalances the representation-by-population
effect of the Commons on smaller provinces and territories, and it would also
do away with an important check on the legislation that comes from the Commons
– a sort of halfway point between the legislature and the judiciary.
Eliminating the Senate would simply mean millions of dollars spent on court
challenges when the inevitably flawed legislation of the Commons is brought
before the courts. Abolition out of partisan demagoguery is the ultimate exercise
in parliamentary lopping off one’s nose to spite one’s face.

Lastly, Cullen proposes to hold a plebiscite
on the future of the monarchy at the same time as his referendum on the voting
system and yet proposes no alternative to the Crown in our constitution. Again,
I fail to see the point of what Cullen is trying to propose, given that he has
articulated no actual reason why we should abolish the monarchy. If he’s
concerned about the cost of the Senate, how is he not then concerned about
the massive costs associated with a presidential system that far outweighs the
costs of the monarchy in Canada (and given our system of a
largely absentee Queen, our share of the costs of said monarchy are extremely
minimal). This seems like little more than shameless (or indeed shameful)
pandering to the anti-monarchist portion of the Quebec
electorate, which the NDP is trying to out-Bloc the Bloc on to solidify its precarious voter base.

But what is perhaps the most terrifying of
these proposals is the fact that Cullen proposes to use the populist tool of
referenda to blow up the Constitution with little regard for just what it is he’s
really talking about. What are his thresholds for altering the fabric of our
country irreparably? Fifty percent plus one, the same percentage the New Democrats feel should be all
that is needed for a province to secede (as is laid out in their Sherbrooke
Declaration)? Because that would be a huge travesty.

Cullen’s suggestion is also predicated on the
use of the “moral weight” of a referendum’s populism to bully the various
provincial governments into constitutional reform, no matter that it may go
against their own interests or the actual greater interests of the country (assuming
any premier actually makes such a calculation). But here’s what gets me –
constitutions are supposed to be tough to reform. It’s so that a single popular
leader can’t go about altering it on a whim to suit his or her purposes – to keep that leader in power for longer. And in the broader case of Cullen’s
proposals, to severely undermine the accountability that is built into our
system of government (which is being eroded as things stand right now, but that
is not because of any inherent structural flaws and is a story for another day).

Should we have a discussion about “improving
our democracy”? Sure. But the beginning and ending of that discussion is civic
engagement of the voting population at the grassroots riding level. It most
assuredly is not about monkeying around with the constitutional fabric of our
country. That way madness lies.

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