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Want a More Democratic Canada? Start By Getting Rid of the Archaic Senate

10/09/2013 07:10 EDT | Updated 01/23/2014 06:58 EST

The New Democratic Party of Canada has long argued that the Senate is an archaic institution that has no place in a modern democracy, and therefore should be abolished. Of course to accomplish this, we know there is work to do. Canadians must be consulted, provincial support secured, and constitutional amending processes fulfilled.

The Supreme Court of Canada will soon clarify whether we need Parliament plus all 10 provinces to abolish the Senate, or whether the consent of Parliament plus seven provinces representing 50% of the population is sufficient. Whatever amending formula the SCC says applies, the NDP will be ready.

In the meantime, Tom Mulcair has been in full stride, engaging Canadians through the NDP's 'Roll Up the Red Carpet' campaign on Senate abolition and holding Stephen Harper's Conservatives to account for the Senate expense scandal and subsequent cover up.

Meanwhile, in response to a motion I brought forward in the House to start working with the provinces and Canadians towards abolition, MP after MP for the Liberal Party simply threw up their hands, declaring nothing can be done and it's a waste of time to even try and eliminate the undemocratic and unaccountable Senate.

The Liberals' strategy appears to focus on fanning the flames of controversy around past efforts to amend the constitution in order to bolster cynicism, in the hope Canadians will adopt the same defeatist attitude they have. This is a party paralyzed with fear of their own constitutional shadow.

The Constitution, the Senate and our entire democratic system belong to the people, not the politicians. It is up to Canadians to tell us what they want and it is our duty to try to transform the will of Canadians into action. Where there is a will to change things, the job of lawmakers is to find a way, not shrink from the challenge because its hard.

Many forget that back in 1979 then-Liberal Cabinet Minister Marc Lalonde brought forward a government bill to abolish the Senate and replace it with a new body. But, like so many democratic reform promises from so many Liberal leaders and Prime Ministers, this one was soon abandoned and the Senate was left untouched. Since then, if there was one thing we have been able to count on in Canadian politics, it is the Liberal Party of Canada's defense of the status quo Senate.

In contrast, the NDP believes that our government must be responsive to the desire of Canadians for change. We do not accept the old parties' combination of enthusiastic embrace and fatalistic acceptance of this undemocratic, unaccountable and patronage-corrupted institution as a fact of life. Indeed, one reason so many Canadians decided to support the New Democratic Party in 2011 is that they welcomed the late Jack Layton's frequent reminder: don't let them tell you it can't be done.

Across Canada there is growing momentum for Senate abolition and positive democratic change. This isn't just about fallout from the latest Senate scandal, it's about an institution that is structurally defective and undemocratic.

The government's own factum to the Supreme Court says 95 per cent of Senate appointments have been people from the same party allegiance as the Prime Minister of the day. And once appointed, too often Senators use their status, and even budget, to engage in partisan fundraising, running election campaigns and party organizing. RCMP documents recently filed in court make a clear case that Senators have indeed used their offices to do partisan work and travel for party-political reasons -- while charging these expenses to taxpayers.

Of late, we have heard a new argument being advanced in defense of the Senate. Some are now trying to suggest that these partisan Conservative and Liberal Senators actually play -- or could, in some imagined future, play -- the role of restraining some abuses of power emanating from the House of Commons.

Just as John A. MacDonald did in 1866-67 when he called for the Senate to be the defender of the wealthy and economic elites, there are still politicians willing to try and spread fear about the hypothetical abuses of commoners elected to a democratic House, should Canadians choose to follow the path of countries like New Zealand -- or Canada's provinces -- and abolish the Senate.

Ironically, these defenders of the Senate status quo appear to have no interest in offering any solutions to problems like the false majorities our elections produce in the House of Commons, where, with much less than 50 per cent of the vote, parties can win a majority of seats House. The current Liberal leader went so far as to vocally reject proportional representation of parties' seats in the House of Commons according to the percentage of the popular vote.

In contrast, the NDP believes we should try and make our democracy stronger, not just by getting rid of our archaic Senate, but through implementing a fairer, more democratic voting system based on proportional representation.

We also believe there are a host of reforms that could help make the House of Commons a more constructive, more cooperative and more effective institution. For example, we should increase support for, and strengthen the mandates of, independent agents of the House of Commons such as the Parliamentary Budget Officer or the Chief Electoral Officer.

In fact, I am currently touring the country to get Canadians' views on how to move towards a fairer voting system and more democratic parliament.

For the NDP, Senate abolition is not an end in itself. It is part of a broader vision of making Canada more democratic -- where the undemocratic Senate is eliminated and the quality of democracy in the House of Commons is enhanced.

We believe Canadians would rather see their political leaders embracing the challenge of making change happen than give up because it might be hard at times. When it comes to making our democracy stronger, New Democrats will never give in to the defeatism of old line parties grown so comfortable with the status quo.

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