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Referendum on Senate? Only if it includes all options – including a “reform” one

Michael Bliss, Professor at U of T, argues in the Globe today that the Senate must be abolished, and lays out why it can’t be reformed.

I’ll put aside that part of the argument for now; what I’m interested in is how he feels abolishing the Senate would be any easier then reforming it as an elected body. He argues that it should be put to a vote in a national referendum, and if the consenus is to abolish – dare the provinces who oppose abolishing it to stand against a referendum vote. He doesn’t think they will, they’d be shamed into supporting abolition or be afraid of the electoral consequences if they defied it.

That seems rather presumptuous to assume on his part that provinces are just automatically going to bend to a non-binding referendum vote, regardless of its outcome. What if Maritimers in their region vote no to abolishing the Senate? Would Maritime Premiers automatically tell them the rest of Canada voted yes, so we have to ignore your vote? That would be electoral suicide for them potentially… not so cut and dried as Professor Bliss assumes, I submit.

I’m also leery of putting issues like this to referenda – an old Reform Party populist plank. I can think of a lot of important progressive reforms (end of slavery, etc) that would have been a lot longer in coming to our society if we had put them to referenda at the time they were first being discussed, rather then just through legislation as they were.

Still, I could theoretically support a referendum – as long it has a “reform” option to vote on it, not just a straight “yes or no – keep it or get rid of it”. A couple of current polls show a plurality of Canadians prefer reform to abolition – reform meaning “elected” – so I think just putting a yes – keep it, no – get rid of it question out there does a disservice to those of us who want elected reform to the Senate.

Speaking of Michael Bliss’s presumptions on bending to the will of the people, if a “reform” option is included on a theoretical referendum ballot, and a plurality or majority of voters pick that as the preferred option, under Bliss’s theory, the NDP, Liberals, Conservatives and provinces should also bow to the will of the people. Will that happen? I’ve my doubts, but if my friends on the NDP would like to jump in and comment and affirm that yes, in their case, they’d automatically drop their abolition plank and bow to the elected reform will of the people if that scenario were to occur, feel free. (I specifically mentioned them because its mostly NDP supporters who are linking on Facebook or retweeting this article approvingly this morning, but if any of my provincial friends in Ontario at Queens Park would like to comment on their willingness to follow a referendum result on this, by all means, go nuts)


10 comments to Referendum on Senate? Only if it includes all options – including a “reform” one

  • Phelix Unger

    Hi there

    If Steven Harper hadn’t reloaded the senate with the supporters and past members of the conservative party, he might have had some weight in saying that the Harper government would abolish the senate or go to a elected body prior to his majority government. Upon taking power though he behaved in the same manner as every other politician. So he has no moral authority when it comes to his claims. I think that maybe if the Chief Justices were to over see the method of reform or the senates rebirth most Canadians would support that process. This chamber of sober second thought has become nothing more than an reward for loyalty to any given party. Oops the NDP will never have a soul in the chamber without a majority in parliament which really isn’t likely to happen. Just a thought.

  • KC

    The problem with including a “reform” option is the “and then what?” question. Abolition and status quo are both pretty straight forward to implement. Either the Senate ceases being a part of the legislative process or we carry on with business as usual. Not much room for grey area there.

    Reform requires people to actually agree on how to reform the Senate. We have constitutional amendment formulas in this country that are very rigid and give various provinces/combinations of provinces to block reform. The reason we haven’t had reform isn’t because there is no will to reform. It is because no one agrees on what the post-reform senate would look like–particularly the distribution of seats between the provinces. If there were a clear path to reform we wouldn’t need a referendum. It would just be done.

    Many of the people (including myself) who now want to do away with the Senate arrived at that position after wanting reform but coming to the conclusion that reform was impossible. In today’s day and age no one ever anywhere (nevermind an entire provincial legislature) has the political courage to say “Yes. As a matter of principle my province should have less representation (and thus less power) in a reformed senate and for the good of the country I will vote for a reform package”.

    In other words a vote for “reform” is essentially a vote for the status quo.

    • Things aren’t always in black and white KC… nor so simple (that view is Harper’s and many Conservative’s problem)

      Some of us don’t want the status quo, but want things to be reformed, not destroyed.. so I reject your premise. (welcome back, by the way, I havent seen you around much of late).

      • KC

        Not always black and white but this issue is as close to a stalemate as you see in politics. Like I said, I would prefer reform to abolition or the status quo. But I also prefer abolition to the status quo.

        The challenge for reform advocates is to propose a specific system that could reasonably be expected to be agreed to by all the provinces. I have yet to hear one. Triple E won’t fly in Quebec, anything that dilutes the East’s shall we say “generous” representation will be rejected there and anything that continues to dramatically under represent BC and Alberta will fail as well. So what is left?

        • KC

          As a compromise couldn’t we at least abolish the Senate until such time as reforms are agreed upon? In its current form it is worse than useless and unnecessarily costly to the taxpayers. I’m not suggesting we bulldoze the red chamber. Just that it remain vacant until this stalemate is broken?

          • Hmmm, yes. Oddly, it might actually be politically easier to abolish and then reconstitute the Senate than it would be to get a decent reform directly. Starting from the status quo, everyone’s focused on what they’ll gain or what they’ll lose relative to what we have. Starting from zero, it might be possible to have a serious conversation about what would work and be fair and democratic. Maybe.

            Of course personally, starting from zero, I would tend to advocate keeping things that way. But that’s a separate issue.

          • KC

            Unfortunately that “focus on what they’ll lose” may even preclude abolition of the Senate due to section 51A of the Constitution Act 1867 which provides the Atlantic provinces with a disproportionate number of seats in the House:

            51A. Notwithstanding anything in this Act a province shall always be entitled to a number of members in the House of Commons not less than the number of senators representing such province.

          • True. But a lot of people think the Senate really sucks, so that would counterbalance, at least at the public level. I don’t think most ordinary people care much that there are senators representing their province. So if we’re talking about gaining legitimacy and political will for abolition through referenda, that would probably still work in the Atlantic provinces.

  • Al

    Abolishing the senate would be a monumental mistake for Canada. Harper would simply be one step closer to his ultimate goal. Complete dictatorship. Can’t you see that is where he is heading with this?

  • It’s quite true that referenda of the form “Should we fuck over those people over there for our gain?” where “those people” either don’t get a vote or are relatively few in number, are problematic. That’s the “tyranny of the majority” for you, and it’s a problem for all forms of democratic politics really. As far as the relative justness of referenda vs. elected representatives, it can cut the other way as well. There are lots of referenda you could propose today vis a vis First Nations, such as “Be it resolved that per capita spending on schooling for First Nations children be equal to that for other Canadian children” (rather than 60% as much) that might well pass even though successive democratically elected governments have refused to improve the situation.

    But as a rule, when it’s a matter of people deciding what happens to themselves, I think referenda are an excellent democratic tool and increased reliance on them one of the few sound things the ReformaCRAPpers ever proposed. Of course, we now have a Reform party in majority government and one symptom that it’s a good idea is that they never made the tiniest motion towards enacting it, even though it would have been a fairly popular move. They never meant it, it was just the kind of thing they had to say while they were claiming to be all grassrootsy. The main problems with referenda in our current system are in any case exactly the same as the main problems with representative democracy in our current system: Money and propaganda influencing votes against the people’s interests. But that isn’t a reason to not have referenda any more than it’s a reason to not have democracy. It’s a reason to curtail the impact of money and propaganda on our political system.

    I do agree that the best referendum would have all relevant options not just a keep/abolish duality. Heck, put multiple reform options on the table, maybe even multiple abolishment options (from gradual to “Get them, my pretty, and their little pensions too!”). Do it as a ranked/transferrable vote.

    So then, what if the results don’t go the way I want? Well, it’s true I won’t change my mind. The next time I change my mind just because most people disagree with me will be the first. That’s not what democracy is about. What most people want gets to happen because it’s their right, not because they are in the right. And it is not the responsibility of minority opinions to accept the new doctrine, just to acknowledge the right of the majority to decide. I get to keep on loyally advising the Queen ;), and through her the people, that most of the people have got it wrong and might want to change their minds. Once the majority figure out that I was, as usual, right all along, they can make a new majority decision.
    Or not. Making the right decision isn’t really the most important thing in politics. It’s a thing with some importance, but far from the most important. I mean, take the Senate. I think the best decision would be to abolish it. Second best would be a really good reform of some sort. Third is keep it, because currently it sucks. But we’ve managed as a country this long continuously making that third decision about this. If you said to me “We can abolish the Senate right now, but the cost will be some long term abrogation of the public influence on public policy, a reduction in the level of democracy”, I’d say if that’s what it takes keep the damn thing for now. So, well, I can’t speak for the NDP (that’s for sure–if I could they’d be a very different party) but my personal reaction would be “OK, the people have spoken, we’ll back their reform. For now. But just this particular thing they voted for, this particular time; we’re not changing our general policy. If it works well, no biggie. If it doesn’t, we can abolish the Senate later–we’ve waited this long.”

    In point of fact, I suspect these days public sentiment runs in favour of abolition. But you know, I invite you to take the same stance. Say we had a referendum, the majority spoke, and we abolished the Senate. There would still be arguments to be made for the checks and balances of a bicameral legislature of some sort. You could continue to argue for re-creating the Senate only done right this time. There’s no reason you should have to buy the abolition position just because the majority do, even if that majority includes me.

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