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The Senate chamber sits empty in Ottawa on Jan. 17, 2011. (Reuters)
The Senate chamber sits empty in Ottawa on Jan. 17, 2011. (Reuters)

The NDP's reckless referendum proposal Add to ...

On a simplistic level, who can possibly be against Jack Layton's proposal to hold a referendum to abolish the Senate? Democracy is good. Asking the people big questions directly is good. The current Senate is tough to defend. So on a simplistic level, Jack's onto something.

Of course this is Canada and Jack is proposing a major constitutional amendment meaning nothing is simple. While seemingly trivial, Layton's proposal has the potential to be anything but.

Prima facie, the federal government cannot abolish the Senate unilaterally meaning without the provinces signing on to the referendum as well, or agreeing to be bound by the results. This is little more than a PR move (an empty PR move? From the NDP? Never!). There is no reason at this point to think a significant number of provinces have any interest in this referendum gambit. At least not now - not with provincial elections looming almost everywhere. There isn't a single province where Senate reform currently ranks as a burning priority, never mind abolition, meaning his proposal is dead on arrival.

But let's play make-believe and pretend the NDP referendum gambit got some mileage and was taken seriously by the premiers as well as a federal government of the day. This has the potential to be an absolute disaster. It is inconceivable that Quebec signs up for constitutional reform limited only to the Senate. Enshrining Quebec as a nation - whatever that means - is now presumably a starting point with demands almost certain to grow from there. With a severely weakened and loathed Premier Jean Charest and a PQ opposition ready to pounce, proposing flippant constitutional change is reckless behavior by a federalist leader.

And that ignores demands that would likely emerge from aboriginal groups, the other provinces, judicial activism opponents, land-rights proponents and on, and on it would almost certainly go. It is almost impossible to see how this ends well. While Jack may just want to talk Senate reform, if anyone took him seriously, it would almost certainly spiral from there.

So on the one hand, who could possibly be opposed to a referendum on the Senate? On the other hand, all Canadian federalists should be.

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