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We’re stuck with the Senate

Like so many people these days, I’d be quite happy to see the Senate abolished. But it’s not going to happen anytime soon. Indeed, all this talk of a referendum on abolition makes me nervous. It flirts with disaster.  And now Andrew Coyne is musing about a referendum on the constitutional amending formula.

As everyone knows, the Supreme Court has been hearing arguments on the Harper government’s request for guidance on changes to the Senate. The Court is expected to rule that, while reform requires the agreement of Parliament and seven provinces with at least fifty percent of the population, abolition requires the agreement of Parliament and all 10 provinces: unanimity.

As Coyne notes, the chance of getting all the premiers and Parliament to agree on abolition is close to zero.  In short, abolition is a lost cause … or is it?  According to some, a referendum offers a possible way around this.  It would reach over the heads of reluctant premiers — such as PEI’s Robert Ghiz — to ask their citizens for their view.  If a majority said yes, the thinking goes, what premier would contradict his/her voters?

Coyne pushes the envelope even further.  In his view, the premiers have far too much control over the Constitution and he wonders if it’s time the people took some of it back.  So, even though he apparently agrees that a referendum on the Senate will end in deadlock, he raises the idea of a referendum on the unanimity formula as a way to make real change possible again.

Frankly, I don’t’ get it.  I can’t see how anything good could come from a national referendum on either the Senate or the amending formula. Coyne is certainly right that First Ministers have a chokehold on the process of constitutional amendment — but that is exactly why a referendum will fail.  There is no way to prevent them from taking an active role in the campaign and, once they do, they will put the country on a collision course.

Consider PEI’s Robert Ghiz.  In an interview this week on CBC’s Power and Politics he made it abundantly clear that, while he would be willing to consider ways to reform the Senate, he would not support any effort that diminished his province’s current weight in Parliament.  But if he’s not about to give up his four Senate seats, he is surely not about to put his constitutional veto up for grabs without a fight.

And what about Quebec Premier Pauline Marois? Does anyone really think she is going to agree to put Quebec’s Senate seats on the block in a national referendum and ask for nothing in return — let alone the provinces’ veto (unanimity) over major constitutional changes?

We should remind ourselves that Quebec lost its traditional veto over constitutional change in the 1981 Patriation Reference and that this has been a major grievance ever since.  Indeed, restoration of the veto was one of the five conditions Premier Robert Bourassa set out for the Meech Lake Accord.  Quebeckers have seen it as a basic condition of constitutional reconciliation ever since.

Supporters of a referendum will reply that I’m missing their point. Maybe the people of Quebec or of PEI have a different view than their premiers and, given a chance to vote on it, will cast their vote in favour of abolishing the Senate.  And there are polls that support this view.

But recent events have shown just how volatile polling numbers can be.  Consider the last elections in Quebec, Alberta and BC.  If the prime minister were to call a referendum on abolition or to change the unanimity formula, any support for such change in Quebec or PEI would likely shift like sand in a windstorm.

Ghiz would travel around the province telling Islanders that a yes-vote would throw away key tools that the country’s smallest province needs to advance its interests on the national stage.  He would likely be supported by the other political parties.

As for Marois, if there was any doubt before about her willingness to engage in wedge politics, we’ve now seen how she handled the controversy over Quebec’s Charter of Values.  She is obviously quite willing to divide Quebeckers, if it serves her purpose.  She is even more willing to divide Quebec from the rest of the country.

Putting the Constitution on the table would let her do just that.  Marois would quickly turn a referendum to abolish the Senate or change the unanimity formula into a debate over Quebec’s long-standing constitutional grievances and demands.

Finally, we mustn’t overlook Ottawa’s place in such a debate.  Prime Minister Harper has shown that he too has a penchant for hardball politics.  Calling a referendum and then standing on the sidelines to ‘let the people decide’ is hardly his style.

If there were a referendum on either the Senate or the unanimity formula, Harper would be deeply involved and he would play to win.  That would almost certainly lead to a clash with Marois, Ghiz and possibly others.

In short, the chances of success seem remote. It is therefore hard to see what useful purpose such a debate would serve.  On the contrary, it would open old wounds and divide the country.  We don’t need that.

Torontonians are now realizing that they may be stuck with Rob Ford, at least until the next election. That’s a shame, but Toronto will survive.  Unless the Supreme Court can find a way to link abolition to the 7/50 formula, Canadians will be stuck with the Senate for some time to come.  That’s a shame — but we too will survive.


Dr. Don Lenihan is Chair of the Ontario Open Government Engagement Team and Senior Associate at Canada’s Public Policy Forum in Ottawa. He is an internationally recognized expert on democracy and public engagement, accountability and service delivery. Don’s latest book, Rescuing Policy: The Case for Public Engagement is an introduction to the field of public engagement, a blueprint for change, and a sustained argument for the need to rethink the public policy process. The views expressed here are those of the columnist alone. Don can be reached at: or follow him on Twitter at: @DonLenihan

The views, opinions and analyses expressed in the articles on National Newswatch are those of the contributor(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the publishers.
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