Elections could avoid a divisive constitutional amendment

Brent StaffordtheQ Leave a Comment

theQuestion: Should the Senate be elected or abolished?*

In the wake of the Senate expense scandal, the federal NDP has turned up the heat. Party leader Thomas Mulcair promised to make the abolition of the Senate a key priority in the party’s next election campaign. The party launched a populist website replete with statistics and analysis of the costs for the Senate. However, they are hiding a truth behind the numbers, which makes their promise of abolition spurious at best and reaffirms my belief that any suggestion of abolition is just politicking. The only real, viable path to fix the Senate mess is through elections.

The NDP says the cost of the upper house is $92.5 million a year and its plan to abolish the Senate will save taxpayers money. What the NDP is not telling you is senators’ salaries, allowances and benefits only make up 36% of the cost of the Senate. Slightly more of the cost — 38% — goes to the salaries and benefits of unionized government employees. Taxpayers pay $35.5 million a year for the 450 union employees who keep the Senate running. I find it highly implausible the NDP will downsize these government jobs. So how much money would taxpayers really save? The NDP is not promising to save any money, just reallocate Senate spending to other priorities.

Abolishing the Senate would also most likely take a constitutional amendment and this would be no easy path. Patrick Smith, a political science professor at Simon Fraser University, shared with me a great analogy that opening up the Canadian Constitution is like trying to fix a warped floorboard. You start at one end and by the time you reach the other it’s pulled up all the floorboards around it. If we open up the Constitution, fierce horse-trading would result. The last time we attempted a constitutional amendment was with the Charlottetown Accord and it cost $369 million in today’s dollars. We just can’t afford it.

The Harper government has it right with the Senate Reform Act (Bill C-7). The bill outlines a plausible and cost-effective plan to reinvigorate the Senate through elections without a constitutional amendment. New senators will be elected by the people in each province and limited to a nine-year term with all senators already appointed by the prime minister migrated to the new term limit. Elections will legitimize the Senate’s already existing absolute veto power over government legislation, resulting in a popular assembly empowered by the people to provide effective checks and balances to the ruling majority government of the day.

*First published in 24hrs Vancouver ‘theDuel’

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