The NDP v. The Senate

by Aaron Wherry

John Ivison says the NDP is trying to figure out how an NDP government would deal with a Conservative-dominated Senate. Brian Topp tried to confront this issue during the NDP leadership race.

The form and function of the Senate are not academic issues. When we form government in 2015, it will be an immediate problem facing our government, since we will be confronted with a second chamber composed of Conservative and Liberal appointees. These senators may feel free to oppose the policies on which we will have been elected. I propose that our party ask for a mandate in the next election to abolish the Senate. I then propose that an Act be introduced early in the life of the next Parliament amending the constitution to do so.

The urgency with which this matter is then pursued with provinces (who will have to consent to this modernization, which was adopted in all provincial legislatures long ago) should then depend on the conduct of the Senate during the next Parliament. If the Senate provokes a constitutional crisis by blocking a budget or other important legislation, Senate abolition should be pursued as an immediate and urgent priority. If the Senate returns to its traditional role and subordinates itself to the House of Commons, then the matter can be pursued more deliberately over the course of the next Parliament.

The NDP and the Conservative Senate already have history: two years ago, the Senate defeated the NDP’s Climate Change Accountability Act. Last year, the NDP called for a national referendum on the future of the Senate.




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The NDP v. The Senate

  1. Glad too see they’re looking at reality. Even if the NDP were able to hold a referendum on the Senate, or negotiate its demise with the provinces, it would take time. In the meantime, they’d need to get legislation introduced and passed in the Senate.

  2. Why don’t they just run candidates in provincial senate elections with NDP governments? Either they get appointed, and start a senate caucus, or the PM reneges and they get another argument in their abolition campaign.

    • Because their entire argument is that the senate shouldn’t be there, but if it is there, an elected senate is the worst of all worlds. An elected senate gains the electoral clout to start acting in radical fashion. It brings in all the problems with electoral politics (ie, winning an election is no indication of skill, brains, or experience, just that a person can win an election — by hook or crook) with none of the benefits (such as limited terms requiring elected candidates pay attention to public sentiment)

      So just by running candidates, they’re giving cover to the idea that an elected senate is acceptable. Worse, if their candidates win, they now have to deal with divisive internal issues if they seek to get rid of it.

      • Exactly—an elected upper house becomes a competing center of political power and threatens to overshadow the Commons. Moreover, it’s another choke point for progressive legislation. It is unsurprising that the NDP would be in favor of Senate abolition, though it is a little surprising that they take it seriously enough to refuse to have a Senate caucus, etc.

  3. Because nothing beats governance by gun-point?

    Okay, I’m a big senate booster. I think it serves a vital purpose as conscience and memory of Canada past. I think it acts as a brake on wild swings of public sentiment to one extreme or another. I think having it be appointed by the PM is a good thing, as it (theoretically) allows appointment of people who are best suited for the position by virtue of their intelligence and judgment, and irrespective of their personal charisma or elect-ability. I think the lifetime appointments are good things, as they allow senators the time to not only get past any gratitude to their initial appointer, but also to gain the experience and breadth of knowledge about Canada’s laws and systems so that they really can serve as a body of sober second thought. Furthermore, as evidence in recent legislation by the CPC shows.. we obviously need someone looking over these laws that they slap-dash together and plow through the House.

    And yet.. and yet.. Ivison and Topp raise a good point.
    All of my above points are based on the assumption that people put into the senate will turn to attempting to make sure that what they do is best for Canada. They are based on the assumption that these senators are able to grow beyond petty partisan politics — that’s the point of them being there for life after all, right? They don’t have to play these stupid games.

    Agh. And what’s so annoying is that we should be better than this. What’s happened to us that the game has become more important than the governance?

    • Stephen Harper has happened to us… and its not anymore complicated than that.

      • I don’t buy it. I don’t buy that one man has the ability to turn the entire parliament into a house of baboons. Not without the consent of the public.

  4. And you don’t need to expect anything but total obstruction. opposition and mischief from a Reform/Conservative Senate if the NDP actually won. We would have some sort of constitutional crisis especially of Harper stayed on in opposition.

    • Well, the problem with total obstruction is that it gives the NDP further ammo for abolition. A better strategy on the part of the Conservatives would be to let through almost all legislation, but pick one or two things they really didn’t like and veto those. Of course, it’s all-too-easy to decide everything is a bill too far and fall into the total obstruction trap, but if the Conservatives genuinely want to keep the Senate around, they need to avoid that at all costs.

  5. I used to disagree with the NDP about the Senate because I think it could, as conceived, play a role for discussing important issues in a non-partisan way, as well as function as a useful check against imprudent legislation.

    The excessive partisanship over the last 30 years, and the tendency to use the Senate as an instrument of the PMO lately, however, has led me to the NDP position that it ought to be abolished.
    That doesn’t solve the problem of the constitutional poison pill Mr. Harper is leaving behind, though.

    • No. We simply need a new mechanism for appointing Senators. Perhaps allow the Governor General to appoint them. The GG is appointed by the Prime Minister, so he will tend to appoint people the PM likes, but he will very likely also appoint people who are experienced or learned in some capacity, intelligent, and thoughtful. Because the GGs reputation will depend on it.

      • That’s an interesting thought, but for me it devalues part of what I find important about the senate.. that the make-up of the senate is a reflection of Canadian’s values over time. We’ll get a new GG every five years or so. During particularly contentious times, we could have a new government every couple of years.

        Our current problem in the senate stems, as do so many of our problems, from Dithers Martin. Had he appointed the people he was allowed to appoint, the senate makeup would still more accurately reflect the full makeup of Canadians. By allowing himself to be cowed by the Reformers and not appoint senators, he left those seats open for Harper to put a lot more of his supporters in place.

        Personally, I think the mechanism we need that would really reform the senate would be a citizen recall. At every general election, every voter gets a chance to write in the name of one senator they’d like to see get the boot. If any senator gets 50% or more of the boot votes cast, that one is out. This keeps all the good functions of the senate, and is a high enough bar that a senator would really have to torque off the people to be cast out.

        • I want to understand what you object to because I think the concept of a Senate is a valuable thing. I can hardly argue against the fact that, in its current form, it is dysfunctional, but I’d really not throw out the concept–if we could just fix it!

          So, I find the reflection of Canadian values over time in the Senate to be a very valuable component, too. I just don’t understand why you think a GG appointment wouldn’t do that, where a PM appointment does. Just because the GGs term is only five years or so, doesn’t mean his appointed Senators have to leave, too.

          I like the Senate coming up with their own rules (now that they know they can do this) and demanding behaviour of Senators worthy of the Senate. Such as attendance. I think we could strongly encourage them to strive for a higher standard than what we see currently, because I don’t think we do that at all now.

          • Stopped too soon. But, yeah, your 50% recall vote could work, too, as long as each election is limited to a single Senator. Because everyone could vote for a different Senator, to get 50% of the votes cast you’d have to be a REALLY bad Senator!!

          • Ah. No, I wasn’t thinking that the senators would have to leave, perhaps I was unclear.

            was thinking along the lines of GG is appointed by Prime Minister X near the end of the term. GG lasts for five years. Meanwhile, Prime Minister X is replaced by Prime Minister Y with radically different values but a minority government. During that time a senate opens up. My thinking is the appointment should reflect Prime Minister Y, not Prime Minister X through the GG. In a minority position, Prime Minister Y may never even be represented.

          • Ah. Yes, I hadn’t thought of the PM appointing a new GG right before an election. Thanks.

  6. They could start by looking back at their own history. If I remember correctly, David Lewis used to propose that the salaries of senators be reduced to $1 a year. The commons could also eliminate the senate’s budget for staff and other tools of the trade. How many of the hacks in the upper house would be bothered to show up then, I wonder?

  7. Shorter Topp: “The checks and balances of our democracy will not work in the favour of the NDP. Therefore, we must remove those checks and balances if elected”.

    I have a feeling many potential NDP voters would find those musings a bit scary.

    • Patrick Brazeau, Mike Duffy and the rest of Canada’s senate…keeping the Harper government honest and safeguarding Canada’s Democracy.

      • Democracy sucks when your side loses, doesn’t it? However most reasonable Canadians understand that you don’t go and start destroying the countries democratic institutions just because you don’t like who’s in power.

        What next, you’re going to start calling for an end to parliament because you don’t like some MP’s? Maybe we should get rid of the PBO, I’m pretty sure there are some people who’d be displeased with that office right now.

        • Go ahead and give us an example of how the Senate has acted as a “check and balance” on the Harper government.

          I recall them thwarting democracy by rejecting legislation passed by the majority of our democratically elected parliament on orders from Harper, but acting as a check, not so much. Unless by “checks and balances” you mean means by which the Conservative Party keeps democracy in check.

          • The senate isn’t supposed to act as a “check and balance” on any one particular party, in this case the government. Again, you’re misunderstanding it’s role. It’s not supposed to be an adversarial institution to only counter the governing party.

            The Senate is the chamber of “sober second thought”, and in the case of the NDP’s Bill C-311, they acted as exactly that. The Senate decided that the bill, even though it had passed in the house, was ridiculous and dangerous on it’s face. It was a bill passed, not for the good of the country, but only to score political points. The Senate realized this, and killed it. In other words, they acted as a “check and balance” by exercising “sober second thought”. You might call that “twarting democracy”, but more keen observers would call it “our democratic institutions doing their job”.

            Oh, and please find me one reference for the claim that the Senate rejected Bill C-311 on Harper’s orders. Because I’m pretty sure that’s just a bald faced lie. Nothing as impressive as making things up about your political opponents, then calling them un-democratic, all in an effort to undermine our democratic institutions, because those institutions stand in the way of imposing your ideology on the country. Keep standing up for democracy by attempting to undermine it.

          • Flat out killing a bill is pretty much unprecedented, and is not “sober second thought” it’s partisan hackery. Sober second thought would be taking the bill, finding a number of problematic areas, and bouncing it back to the House to revise.

            To say the senate realized this and killed it completely ignores that the only reason it was killed was because of procedural gamesmanship by the CPC appointees, taking advantage of a time when a few of the other appointees were not in the room.

            It wasn’t killed by the senate, and many senators actually protested what happened. It was killed by political gamesmanship.

            Although, given the reaction to the coalition, I do understand why you call the tactics used there “impressive”.

          • Said the Globe at the time:

            “Without any debate in the Red Chamber, Conservative senators caught
            their Liberal and unelected counterparts off-guard on Tuesday by calling
            a snap vote on Bill C-311…”

            Hardly seems like “sober second thought,” considering there was no debate whatsoever. And it certainly fell along party lines.

            Also, lenny asked for a single example of the Conservative-dominated Senate applying a check or balance to the Conservative government, not the Conservative party. And I don’t think you can find a single example.

          • Said the Globe at the time:

            “Without any debate in the Red Chamber, Conservative senators caught
            their Liberal and unelected counterparts off-guard on Tuesday by calling
            a snap vote on Bill C-311…”

            Hardly seems like “sober second thought,” considering there was no debate whatsoever. And it certainly fell along party lines.

            Also, lenny asked for a single example of the Conservative-dominated Senate applying a check or balance to the Conservative government, not the Conservative party. And I don’t think you can produce a single example.

          • Riiiiight, guy-who-isn’t-Rick. Their “sober second thought” results in them passing every single one of the countless bill Harper sends them, and rejecting, without debate, an NDP bill.
            Pull the other one.
            I don’t see any reason to believe Harper won’t continue to use the Senate to usurp democracy when the Cons no longer form government – which is why the Senate really has to go.

        • Irony alert!!! I am beginning to think Omen is Pierre Poilievre, he sounds just like him.

          • Nah, this is StewartSmith doing the sarcasm thing again. Heh, its really funny because you think a Conservative supporter is complaining “that you don’t go and start destroying the countries democratic institutions” I mean, the irony is a mile wide!

          • I was talking about Omen. I am a big fan of SS’s humour.

          • I know, but isn’t it obvious SS hacked Omen’s handle? Because otherwise it really is a Conservative supporter being so far gone from reality that . . . oh, wait a minute . . .

          • Definitely plausible…LOL

        • You forgot to mention that most of the Conservative Senators will have to retire shortly after the NDP wins government, anyway. They get eight years and then retire, right? Right?

    • What are you talking about? No Senator has ever won an election.

        • Oops. I meant to reply to the nonsense you posted as a reply to lenny. My bad.

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