In a modern democracy, there is simply no room for unelected parliamentarians.
Ten years after promising to fix the Senate and put an end to Liberal scandal and corruption, Stephen Harper and his Conservatives have now come to embody everything they opposed until they formed government. Instead, Harper’s legacy on the Senate is one of broken promises and failed policies. His 2006 election promise never to appoint an unelected senator was broken even before his first cabinet was sworn in. And his Senate reform policies sat idle on the floor of the House of Commons for years before finally being sent to the Supreme Court, which confirmed that his plan was unconstitutional.
Liberals, on the other hand, like to argue that the Senate plays a key role in our parliamentary system as a chamber of sober second thought and a voice for Canada’s regions. But time and again senators have shown they actually work for the narrow interests of their political party — ahead of creating sound public policy or representing their regions or provinces. The Supreme Court also noted that Liberals and the Conservatives have appointed defeated candidates, campaign managers, party faithful and financial donors, at a rate of 95 percent over the last 150 years.
By contrast, New Democrats have refused to accept senators in our caucus on principle, and Senate abolition has been the consistent position of the NDP for decades. We believe that in a modern democracy, there is simply no room for unelected parliamentarians who have the power to enact laws and defeat legislation adopted by the democratically elected House of Commons. This power, it should be noted, has been exercised a number of times during Harper’s tenure, including the defeat of Jack Layton’s ground-breaking climate change legislation and, more recently, the demise of NDP MP Randal Garrison’s Bill C-279 on transgender rights, through systematic delay of its passage in the Senate over more than two years.
Of course, New Democrats know that Senate abolition can only be achieved in consultation with the provinces. Unlike Stephen Harper, who persistently refuses to meet with his provincial counterparts, I have committed to meeting with the assembly of Canada’s premiers at least twice a year.
Last year, the Supreme Court set out the constitutional roadmap for Senate abolition. And while Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau have done their best to interpret the judgement as a confirmation that the Senate cannot be abolished, the truth is that the court took great care to state that “the desirability of changes [to the Senate] is not a question for the court: it is an issue for Canadians and for their legislatures.”
If we take stock of the proposals currently on the table, abolition is the only option that will be effective in the long term. And the NDP has confidence that Canadians do not share the defeatist approach of those who proclaim that abolition is impossible.
Ultimately, the Liberals are content to peddle the status quo as if it is actually a change. Trudeau’s pretence that he accomplished something by barring his senators from attending weekly meetings has deservingly been panned as ineffective. Liberal senators have become Senate Liberals who continue to vote as Liberals, and many of them continue to fundraise as Liberals and campaign for the Liberal Party.
Justin Trudeau also claims that the problems of the Senate will be solved if we simply appoint ‘’better senators’’ through a new, supposedly nonpartisan, merit-based process, whose details remain thoroughly unclear. This is a plan that cannot be taken seriously as it fails to address the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the institution itself.
The NDP believes in the abolition of the Senate as one element of its broader, concrete plans for democratic reform in Canada, which includes transformation of the House of Commons through mixed-member proportional representation. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, many believe that the Senate upholds principles like the protection of minority rights and the balance of executive power with accountability to the legislative branch of government. These are principles that the NDP believes can be upheld through an institution that is much more democratic than the Senate, namely, the House of Commons.
More and more, Canadians are coming to agree with the NDP that the Senate should be abolished. But while we are on the road to abolition, the NDP will also take concrete steps to make the Senate more functional, fair and accountable. In October 2013, the NDP proposed a motion in the House of Commons that would have created a less partisan and more accountable Senate. Unfortunately, Conservatives and Liberals joined forces to maintain the status quo by voting down the reform.
As well, the Auditor General’s June 2015 report included several recommendations that would immediately address the free-for-all that has allowed senators to abuse the public purse. These recommendations included installing an independent body to oversee expenses, a measure the NDP has consistently promoted, for both the Senate and the House.
Increasingly, Canadians want a long-term solution to address the fundamentally undemocratic and illegitimate nature of the Senate, not just a response to its lack of transparency and accountability. This can be achieved only through Senate abolition.
Strengthening our democracy requires principles and vision. And just because the effort is difficult does not mean that we should accept the permanence of the Senate. Getting rid of this relic from the past is indeed possible, and it starts with a strong mandate from Canadians on October 19.