06 November 2007

Referendum on Senate?

NDP leader Jack Layton and Conservative Senator Hugh Segal have proposed a national referendum on abolishing Canada's Senate, the unelected upper chamber of Parliament. Now Prime Minister Stephen Harper has indicated that he would support such a referendum if the Senate cannot be reformed. If Harper is serious about this, he could effectively alienate the west, which is a key Conservative stronghold. In general, westerners prefer to see a "Triple E" Senate — elected, equal and effective. By giving each province the same number of Senators, by having them elected for fixed terms and by empowering them to check the Commons, a Triple-E Senate would more closely resemble the American and Australian Senates.

Needless to say, there is no enthusiasm for such a Senate in Ontario and Québec, whose dominance of Parliament as a whole would be curtailed under the new arrangement. They and New Democrats alike would prefer to see the Senate abolished. However, in supporting such a referendum, Harper would take a potentially huge risk. If voters in Ontario and Québec won a victory for abolition through sheer numbers, and if westerners had voted overwhelmingly to oppose such a move on grounds that it would eliminate any possibility of their having a greater voice in Ottawa, it could conceivably exacerbate the regional divisions in this country and in his own party.

Yet Harper has proved himself to be a crafty politician. He must know all this. Which makes me wonder whether he might have something up his sleeve. Stay tuned.

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