Abolition calls are useless Senate experts say

Constitutional experts say calls to abolish the Senate, as proposed by Saskatchewan's premier and the federal NDP, are destined to go nowhere.

Provinces need to be on side to get rid of upper chamber

Constitutional experts say calls to abolish the Senate are useless. On Monday, Premier Brad Wall's Saskatchewan Party released the results of a party referendum showing 86 per cent were in favour of abolishing the Senate. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Calls to abolish the Senate, as proposed by Saskatchewan's premier and the federal Opposition, are destined to go nowhere, say constitutional experts.

Premier Brad Wall says his Saskatchewan Party wants the doors closed on the upper chamber of Parliament.

A recent mail-in referendum, the results of which were released Monday, saw 86 per cent of just over 3,700 of the party's members vote to abolish the Senate.

Demands to either dramatically reform or abolish the Senate have become more pronounced as a scandal unfolds over allegations that a handful of senators misused public money by making improper housing or travel-expense claims.

The scandal has resulted in the resignation of the prime minister's chief of staff, an RCMP investigation and the departures of three senators — Conservatives Mike Duffy and Pamela Wallin and Liberal Mac Harb — from their party caucuses.

Another former Conservative senator, Patrick Brazeau, was removed from the Tory caucus over an unrelated criminal matter that is currently before the courts.

But calls to close down the Senate are reactionary, and pointless, says University of Ottawa professor Errol Mendes. "(Abolition) is a non-starter, whatever Saskatchewan and Brad Wall thinks," says Mendes. "It's not going to happen."

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair has also said he will campaign in the next federal election on a platform that includes getting rid of the unelected body.

But the Constitution requires, at minimum, the approval of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population to make any significant changes to the Senate, including abolishing it.

And a national debate over Senate abolition would only open the door to demands from the provinces for other changes to the Constitution, says Ned Franks, an emeritus political science professor at Queen's University.

British Columbia's premier appears to be the only one backing Wall in his call for abolition of the so-called chamber of sober second thought.

Ontario, under former premier Dalton McGuinty, endorsed the idea. But the province's newest premier, Kathleen Wynne, said in May that she sees value in maintaining a reformed version of the upper chamber of Parliament.

The Quebec government has expressed strong opposition to closing the Senate's doors. And there is no appetite for abolition in the East either.

"The Atlantic provinces would basically say (the Senate) is the reason why we came into Confederation," said Mendes.

"And that makes it the end of the story (on abolition)," added Franks.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper effectively closed the door to significant Senate reform by giving up on the notion of finding a way to have senators chosen independently, said Mendes. Harper campaigned in 2006 to have senators elected. 

After coming to power, however, one of his first acts was to appoint his Conservative election campaign co-chair, Michael Fortier, as both a senator and minister of public works.

Shortly afterward, Harper attempted to have right-wing reformist Gwyn Morgan appointed as commissioner of public appointments. When the opposition parties refused to accept Morgan in the yet-to-be-created position, Harper backed away from forming the commission.

"(The prime minister) could have had some of the most credible elder statespeople in Canada being appointed to a commission who could work with the provinces to establish credible appointees to the Senate," said Mendes.

"He not only didn't fulfil his promises, he went ahead and appointed the type of people who are now at the core of the problems plaguing the Senate."

Both Mendes and Franks argue that the Senate, with some reforms to improve accountability for spending tax dollars, is worth keeping around.

A recent example of how the upper chamber can function well as an arm of government, they said, was the vote last month to amend Bill C-377. The bill, which could dramatically change the rules around financial disclosure by unions, was amended in the Senate with the backing of 16 Conservative senators who voted with the Liberals to block the legislation. The controversial bill will now go back to the House of Commons.

The prime minister has referred a number of questions related to Senate reform to the Supreme Court of Canada, asking the high court for an opinion on term limits, the process for making appointments, qualifications and how the chamber could be abolished.

Specific to abolition, the government wants the high court to decide whether the upper chamber could be closed down under approval of seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population, or whether unanimous consent would be required.

The court has yet to hear the reference.