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.