It is difficult these days not to watch a news program or read a newspaper and not hear about the Senate. Having been in Parliament for 10 years, I had many opportunities to see how our system works and I am a staunch defender of our democratic values which are being eroded by the Harper government and by the fact that we have an unelected, unaccountable Senate.
I do not for a moment say that all senators are bad; many are committed and believe that they have a contribution to make, and in fact have from time to time issued very good reports on such issues as a guaranteed annual income, which the NDP supports.
This does not, however, justify an outdated institution.
The NDP has no members in the Senate and has been for abolition for decades, not because of the financial abuses we see today but because it is fundamentally undemocratic. The current scandals simply reinforce the need for change.
The question is how to do this? It does require constitutional change, and as someone who has lived through Meech Lake and the Charlottetown Accord, I can appreciate how that makes everyone very apprehensive.
An elected Senate has been proposed as an alternative, but, if one watches the problems in the United States where two elected bodies fight each other, not necessarily to ensure better legislation but to make political points, at times bringing the government to a standstill, it is not an attractive option. Note the recent case in Alaska where because of deadlock the Alaska ferries have said they may stop after July 1 if the budget is not passed.
Tom Mulcair has been the only leader who has committed to work with provinces and territories to discuss abolition. I believe, as does the former Conservative Senator, Hugh Segal, that the first step must be a national referendum. This would open up the debate and in this manner truly reflect the views of Canadians and surely would make it difficult for provincial and territorial leaders to ignore.
Referenda of course are not binding. I recall a number of years ago meeting with Helen Clarke, then Labour prime minister of New Zealand, and a referendum had recently been held on proportional representation, not something any majority government really wants. But it passed and now New Zealand has a more fair electoral system.
Trying to reform the Senate is a form of intellectual acrobatics, rather like trying to put a puzzle together with missing pieces. Would it not be better to create a system that is truly innovative and useful for the 21st century and beyond? A fairer electoral system would be more representative of voters’ preferences and this is something that New Democrats and many Canadians support. Fair Vote Canada, including a local chapter, work toward enhancing our democracy.
We can do so much better than the status quo. Canadians are smarter than that.
Audrey McLaughlin Whitehorse