NDP’s Mulcair takes aim at Senate abolition

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

NDP leader Tom Mulcair speaks with the media in the Foyer of the Senate following caucus meetings on Parliament Hill Wednesday May 22, 2013 in Ottawa. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The scandal unfolding in the Senate is giving new momentum to NDP calls for abolition.

Leader Thomas Mulcair says he and his New Democrats will be talking to Canadians about the need to eliminate the Senate, and he promises that its demise will be a key plank of the party’s next election campaign.

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“We’re going to stop trying to find excuses for keeping a bunch of party hacks, bagmen, political operatives and defeated candidates sitting in appeal of the duly elected members of the House of Commons,” Mr. Mulcair told reporters on Wednesday.

“We’re making sure we’re opening up a conversation with Canadians about this,” he said. “We’re giving them the ability to come to us to help us roll up the red carpet of the Senate and to finally get rid of this vestigial organ that we are convinced can be removed without any harm to the democratic body.”

The New Democrats have launched a website that says the Red Chamber costs Canadians $92.5-million a year, an amount equal to the combined average taxes of 8,000 families, and yet senators worked an average of just 71 days last year. It asks Canadians to sign a petition calling for the abolition of the Senate.

Mr. Mulcair said he also plans to talk to provinces and territories and will back up the fight with an advertising campaign.

Even before the scandal broke, polls were suggesting that the majority of Canadians wanted the Senate abolished or completely reformed. But the sentiment is likely to have increased since Mike Duffy, Mac Harb and Patrick Brazeau were found by a Senate committee to have inappropriately taken money intended to compensate senators whose primary residence is outside the Ottawa region.

That same committee – which removed some of the more critical parts of its report on Mr. Duffy – will reopen its probe of the former TV journalist’s conduct. But a Liberal motion to send the matter directly to the police was opposed by the Conservative majority and rejected this week on procedural grounds.

Meanwhile, Mr. Duffy has faced questions about other per diem expenses he filed for Senate business on days he was campaigning with Conservative candidates during the last election. The Conservative government is being asked to explain why Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, gave Mr. Duffy $90,000 to pay back the amount the senator owed for his housing allowance. And the travel expenses of Senator Pamela Wallin are being scrutinized.

But Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau says he is not yet ready to turn the conversation to abolition and away from the involvement of Mr. Harper and his Conservative government in the current controversy.

“Yes, we will have some big conversations about the Senate in the months and years to come, up to the next election, to find how we can develop a Senate that will have the confidence of Canadians, a positive element of our parliamentary system,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters. “But the conversation to have right now is about the Prime Minister and his total lack of transparency and judgment.”

Senate abolition would likely require reopening the Constitution and the co-operation of the provinces, which could be very difficult. The Harper government is asking the Supreme Court to determine whether the Constitution allows for a number of major reforms to the Red Chamber, including abolition.

Mr. Mulcair said it is useless to consider Senate reform. “You can’t reform something that contains people who have never been elected,” he said, “who don’t understand the very principles of our democracy and who are behaving as the ones that we have just seen in the past week.”

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