Thomas Mulcair and the Senate

Mulcair: Let’s never stop abolishing the Senate

Do you miss the days of constant constitutional wrangling? He’s your man

Tom Mulcair (Photo by Andrew Tolson)

Tom Mulcair (Photo by Andrew Tolson)

Fresh off the best week he’s had since he became NDP leader, Tom Mulcair sat down with the Ottawa Citizen‘s Mark Kennedy to explain his constitutional policy. Highlights:

• As prime minister he would “never” appoint senators.

• He acknowledges that abolishing the Senate requires unanimous provincial approval.

• He’s not letting that stop him. He still favours Senate abolition.

• He’ll meet the provincial premiers twice a year to talk about stuff, including (but not limited to!) Senate abolition.

Let’s unpack this.

First, my perhaps-surprising opening sentence. A bunch of Hill scribes kicked off last week by predicting embarrassment or worse for the NDP leader, who was being hauled before a parliamentary committee to explain his dodgy scheme to set up satellite NDP offices, well away from Ottawa, using funding for parliamentary offices. But in the event Mulcair’s tormenters couldn’t get him to admit to any malfeasance, and while they were trying, he put on an extended virtuoso display of rule-parsing, huffy wounded pride, and general high-wire walking.

The messages he sent were multiple. To NDP supporters, he sent word that he will work as hard to win an election as, say, Stephen Harper does, and not be more apologetic about doing so. To Conservatives and Liberals he made it clear he will not be passive while Harper and Justin Trudeau try to polarize the next election. And to that tiny minority of voters who will support any party led by the beneficiary of the most extensive book learning, Mulcair presented his credentials as the Latin-punning, judicial-text-authoring smartest guy in the room.

So far, so good. There is nothing really new in the Citizen interview, but it’s a handy reminder of what a Mulcair prime ministership would be like, now that he’s made it clear that’s still his goal.

First, in presenting a “contract with the Canadian voting public” to the effect that he would not raise personal income taxes, Mulcair is offering Jack Layton government on John Diefenbaker revenue streams. There’s a tension there, and it would be fun to watch him try. But I’m most intrigued by the interaction of Mulcair’s assorted fascinations with the Senate and executive federalism.

First, he’ll “never” appoint senators. That means there would eventually be fewer Senators. By my count 23 of the current lot are due to retire over the next four years. This attrition rate sometimes gives rise to entertaining fantasies about a Senate that is allowed to starve to death by a prime minister’s refusal to send anyone there. But as the Supreme Court just reminded everyone, a Parliament that contains a Senate is part of Canada’s constitutional order, and this kind of unilateral prime ministerial fiat would not be more acceptable than Harper’s distracted attempts to cap senators’ terms or get them kind-of elected without provincial consent.

Second, however, he does still believe in abolishing the place proper style, through unanimous provincial consent. And how’s that going? Poorly. His meeting last Friday with Philippe Couillard didn’t get the coverage I’d have liked, because Couillard told him what any Quebec premier would have said to any federal leader peddling Senate abolition: No, period.

A reporter asked Mulcair whether he and his friend Couillard “agreed to disagree” on the Senate, and Mulcair said, yes, that’s a good way to put it. In fact it’s an exceedingly polite way to put it, because as long as Quebec’s premier opposes Mulcair’s abolition plan, Mulcair has no abolition plan worth mentioning.

On to the third part of Mulcair’s strategy: He plans to meet with the premiers rather often. “There will be two Council of the Federation meetings per year,” he tells Kennedy, and apparently the premiers will no longer have the pleasure of meeting alone, because Mulcair will host one of those meetings and crash the other. The contrast with Harper is striking. Here I’m indebted to the excellent Wikipedia page on first ministers’ conferences. Two per year is not unprecedented: in the early going, Pierre Trudeau held three per year. Results were mixed. Harper hasn’t convened the premiers since 2009. This is the longest delay between first ministers’ conferences since 1927. Perhaps some happy medium could be imagined.

What on Earth would Mulcair and Couillard and Christy Clark and the rest all talk about, after Couillard says no to Senate abolition at the first meeting? They could move on to real issues, but Mulcair tells Kennedy he would “keep going … to try to build support for getting rid of this antiquity.” Indeed, he has made no secret of his plans to offer Quebec something in return for Senate abolition. I wrote about this more than a year ago and you didn’t listen. The NDP private member’s bill presented as an alternative to Stéphane Dion’s Clarity Act has an entire little chapter devoted to constitutional reform aimed at getting Quebec’s approval for Canada’s constitution:

9. For greater certainty, the question concerning the constitutional change may include proposals to implement recognition that the Québécois form a nation within a united Canada, such as proposals relating to

 (a) the integration of Quebec into the constitutional framework;

(b) the limitation of federal spending power in Quebec;

(c) permanent tax transfers and associated standards; and

(d) the Government of Quebec’s opting out with full compensation from any programs if the Government of Canada intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction.

So. Mulcair is good friends with the Quebec premier; has his electoral base in Quebec; comes from a generation who view the collapse of the Meech Lake accord as a historic missed opportunity; wants to meet the premiers as often as I visit my hometown; needs to change the Quebec premier’s mind on a major NDP platform commitment; and has written down and published a list of constitutional amendments he thinks would please Quebecers. Nope. Nothing to see here.

I don’t see any of this as a deal-breaker. I think extended deadlock on unworkable abolition schemes is perfectly fine. I fully expect a Prime Minister Thomas Mulcair would start appointing NDP senators in the second or third year of his term in office. I don’t think a prime minister who never meets the premiers is inherently better or worse than one who can’t quit them. But I think the emerging Mulcair constitutional strategy is so starkly different from the agendas on offer from his opponents that it’s worth at least noticing.


Mulcair: Let’s never stop abolishing the Senate

  1. Hmmm, so Mulcair’s plan is to get QC to sign up and fully integrate into the nation[er, federation] of Canada, in return for allowing them to not follow any of the rules that everybody else has too. Peace in our time…yep, i can see that working alright. On the bright side it might cost less than continually bribing them to stay anyway – the long time perhaps unavoidable status quo. Hey, why not let em give em the family farm upfront, instead of arguing over it endlessly? That way they can still pretend to care; we can still pretend to be country. Or is the other way around? Mulcair’s a genius. I wonder how Trudeau in particular attacks this!

  2. What’s wrong with constitutional wrangling? I’m baffled by this insistence that there is no way we can ever touch the Constitution again. Yes, Meech Lake and Charlottetown failed. What of it? That was twenty-five years ago. Most Canadians living today were either not born or not living in this country when those events happened. The idea that just because something didn’t work means that we should never do anything is exactly what is wrong with politics in Canada. Nobody wants to take risks; nobody has any vision for what the country could be.

    • We could be… a country of people who have many meetings about constitutional amendments! Again!

      • I dunno Paul. It could be argued were batting .50. Modern era anyway. Trudeau at least succeeded. Brian not so much. Bloody good try though. I didnt see it that way at the time, nor agree with His proposal. withindsight i respect the effort if not the product. Harper won’t try cuz the man couldn’t sell oil to America…or China…or…
        Not a baseball fan myself. But if say that ain’t but for such a crotchety federation.

      • And trying to figure out the best way that our country should be organized and governed is bad because…? It’s hard?

        • So Mulcair is going back to the same party that was going to turf him before he decided to leave the team on his own steam, not bad. Ask Mulcair what it’s going to cost taxpayers to dismantle the senate, does he even have any idea, I doubt it, just populism again. Wells is right, if Mulcair is elected, he will appoint senators, if he wants his bills passed in the red chamber, it isn’t going anywhere after election day, this may take years. We have an appointed SCC that works perfect for the country, it keeps Harper in check, that’s why we need an appointed senate with bright and intelligent people like we have in the SCC in order to keep future governments in check, people who don’t just push bills through to favor the party, but thoughtful, educated and progressive people, people who know our country and how it ticks. The NDP knows it needs senators in the senate if the dippers feel they want to run the country, they have none, they sit outside looking in, and if all bills have to be signed off last by the GG, does that mean the GG has to go too? Could that then be the end to the Monarchy, if so the FNs may have something to say about the GG getting the boot, or maybe the FNs might just want to revisit some things in the constitution they feel has been an irritant since 1867. I still haven’t heard Mulcairs plan to get Canadians back to work yet, only how he can spend the taxpayers money, because he seems to be on a spending spree this last couple of weeks without even accounting for where the money is coming from, and it seems the MSM is doing a very poor job of trying to keep him to account. Just a reminder, don’t underestimate Trudeau, he was very capable of showing his skills amongst a very rag tag and rowdy bunch of C51 NDP supporters out in Edmonton, probably sent out by the Broadbent Institute, hey now there is an institute I would like to abolish .

  3. “Harper hasn’t convened the premiers since 2009”
    -because it was Harp’s way, or the highway, and now look what that has turned into.?
    Harper is completely disconnected from canadians everywhere? -what happened to him?.
    -The way the senate is now, sure, ged rid of it and atleast save a lot of taxpayers money.

    On the hand NO, I do not miss the “days of constant constitutional wrangling” -it’s no wonder Meech utterly failed along with Muldummy.

    A “Doubting Thomas” anyone?

  4. I wonder, would Mulcair go after the SCC too when elected, because hes starting to sound more like Harper everyday, lets just make the country more divisive by tearing down institutions that were designed to keep parliament in check, and it can do its job with some minor adjustments. The Trudeau plan would keep more partisanship out of it and wouldn’t be any cost to the country in doing so, this country is fed up with divisiveness and tough talk.

  5. Canadians have heard abolishing and reform of the senate since we are a colony and a nation.

    Trouble is with Mulcair, he would rather belligerently argue like a out of control pit bull than to say join up with Harper and make the senate house of non-value added patronage club go away. Hey, even a broken watch like Muclair is right twice a day, we will never stop taking of sentate changes as talking allows NO CHANGE just RHETORIC and BS so we don’t get change.

    Its called political stalling. Been stalled for 147 years and I bet with Mulcair’s dogmatic bickering and more to follow him, well will be waiting until 50,000 years from now or a revolution should it happen.

    If Harper said it was black, Mulcair’s personality disorder would say it white.