Senate abolition a non-starter despite Mulcair's push

NDP Leader Tom Mulcair can make a convincing case that the upper house is rotten and must die, but his home province of Quebec won't let it go.

Supreme Court's requirement for provincial consent is a fatal obstacle, but that won't stop debate

RAW: Mulcair says he will seek to abolish Senate

9 years ago
Duration 4:16
NDP Leader Tom Mulcair, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, and Minister of State for Multiculturalism Tim Uppal all address the question of whether the Senate should be reformed or abolished.

Politics is filled with sloganeering and feel-good promises that have little if any chance of being delivered.

And that's the best way to describe NDP Leader Tom Mulcair's renewed promise to abolish the Senate after the auditor general reported Wednesday that too many senators treat taxpayers' money as a kind of personal expense account over which they accept few controls and even less oversight.

No one's questioning whether Mulcair's sincere in his determination to make the Senate an election issue this fall, or that he can make a convincing case using Michael Ferguson's report to argue that the upper chamber is so corrupt, so filled with partisan hacks, so bereft of credibility, that it must be abolished.

"People are telling me they want us to work towards Senate abolition," says NDP Leader Tom Mulcair. (CBC)

What makes this promise a non-starter is a Supreme Court of Canada ruling from April 2014, when the country's highest court said abolishing the Senate would require the consent of all 10 provinces.

As of today, only one premier, Brad Wall of Saskatchewan, is in favour of abolition. This week he compared reforming the upper chamber to lavishing money on restoring an old car, knowing it will never run properly.

But Wall made it clear he has no intention, as in none at all, of actively campaigning to scrap the Senate.

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 "Everyone knows Saskatchewan's position," he said. "I would like to see other provinces come on board but if they don't, even in light of this latest mess, then it's not really worth the effort to try to change their minds."

In other words, good luck there, Mulcair.

'Not in Quebec's interest'

On the other side is the premier of Mulcair's home province of Quebec. 

Premier Philippe Couillard insisted Wednesday that the Senate's troubles are what he called ''administrative dysfunction" that can be fixed. He vowed to fight any effort to scrap the Senate because it would eliminate the important role the chamber plays, as an institution, in balancing regional interests.

"Of course it's not in Quebec's interest to recommend abolition of the Senate," says Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard. (Radio-Canada)

"Of course it's not in Quebec's interest to recommend abolition of the Senate."

Mulcair said he recognizes the historical context of the Senate and understands how nuanced the issue is. But he's undeterred.

"People are telling me they want us to work towards Senate abolition. That is what we are going to talk to Canadians about during the election campaign," he said Wednesday. "And the NDP will be seeking a mandate in October from the Canadian voting public to continue our work of trying to abolish the Senate."

NDP plan to abolish Senate

8 years ago
Duration 9:41
NDP leader Thomas Mulcair says he's "never" met a Senator doing important parliamentary work. Is the NDP's plan to scrap the Senate realistic?

Mulcair has ample ammunition from the auditor general's findings.

Michael Ferguson's report is littered with example of mis-spending, of examples where taxpayers paid for fishing and golf trips, wedding anniversaries and funerals. 

That's bad enough. What's worse, says the NDP, is that the 30 senators flagged for inappropriate spending rejected his findings, defending their right to those expenses. Most are planning to challenge the AG's findings before a special arbitrator. None will face the same, immediate judgment of suspension without pay dispatched to former colleagues Mike Duffy, Patrick Brazeau and Pamela Wallin.

"Everyone knows Saskatchewan's position," says Premier Brad Wall. The Senate needs to go. (CBC)

But is that enough to galvanize Canadians to vote NDP, or to crystallize public anger around abolition instead of reforming the upper chamber to make it more representative?

Reform, of course, is the route the Conservatives took when they came to power in 2006. But since the last year's Supreme Court ruling, Stephen Harper has shown little interest in opening up talks with the provinces on even his preferred reforms of electing senators and imposing term limits. 

Those changes, the court said, could be made under the Constitution's general amending formula that requires seven provinces representing 50 per cent of the population to agree. 

Let the people decide?

Some Conservatives privately float the idea of a national referendum on those reforms, but so far the party is saying little publicly about how it will counter Mulcair's push for abolition in an election campaign.

The official line on Wednesday is that Canadians aren't seized with Senate reform, that the initiative for reform must come from the provinces.

In the meantime, the prime minister isn't filling any vacancies that arise. There are now 20. More are on the way. Don't bother applying.

"We are focusing on jobs," says cabinet minister Tim Uppal. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"We are focusing on jobs, economic growth and what matters to Canadians,'' said junior cabinet minister Tim Uppal, one of many to make the same point. "We will not be drawn into long constitutional battles with the provinces."

But the Conservatives also can't abandon the field to the NDP.

New Democrats are already taking every opportunity to remind potential voters that Harper appointees Mike Duffy and Patrick Brazeau are currently before the courts, and that another handful are among the group of 30 senators flagged by the auditor general this week for claiming improper expenses.

The Liberals are just as keen to exploit any inch the Conservatives might give. Party leader Justin Trudeau tried this week, challenging Harper to follow his lead in banishing senators from the Conservative caucus.

"After a decade Canadians don't want excuses, they want to know why Conservative have done nothing for real, meaningful Senate reform.''

So cue the sloganeering. Just don't expect anything to actually change.

What's next for the Senate?

8 years ago
Duration 8:38
Senators Bob Runciman and Jim Munson on the future of the Senate and the reforms they'd like to see.


Chris Hall

Former National Affairs Editor

Now retired, Chris Hall was the CBC's national affairs editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.