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Tom Flanagan

Tom Flanagan


A Senate referendum: Would Harper dare? Add to ...

As senators fall like bowling pins, due to resignations, suspensions, and investigations, holding a referendum on the Senate’s future seems more and more attractive. But there are many practical difficulties.

We don’t know yet whether the unanimous procedure for amending the Constitution (support of all provinces) or the general procedure (seven provinces with 50 per cent of the population) will be required to abolish or reform the Senate.

Moreover, the government can’t just call a referendum; it has to follow the time-consuming provisions of the Referendum Act, passed in 1992, to authorize the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord. Any referendum question must be approved by both houses of Parliament. Debate in the Commons would be protracted, and additional complications might arise in the Senate, where some members might oppose a referendum about abolishing their own jobs.

Once a question had been agreed upon, the conduct of the referendum would turned over to Elections Canada, with work and expense similar to that involved in managing a general election. Time would be required to print ballots, rent polling places, hire and train vote-counters, and arrange for publicity. The timeline must also allow for the Act’s requirement that committees wishing to spend more than $5,000 campaigning on either side of the question must register with Elections Canada.

After all of this, we might be well into 2015. Remember that under fixed-election-date legislation, a general election is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 19, 2015. Would we really want to hold a referendum on the Senate just a few months before a general election? The moans about duplication and waste of money would be deafening. The general election could be postponed until 2016, but that would bring a new round of grousing about how Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who in 2008 ignored his own fixed-date legislation to go to the polls early, was ignoring it again to prolong his time in office.

Another option would be to hold the referendum and general election on the same day, thus saving $300-million by consolidating electoral events. This would satisfy fiscal hawks but would violate the Referendum Act, which stipulates that a referendum cannot be held during the writ period of a general election. The Act itself would have to be amended, triggering an all-out political brawl.

Holding a referendum at the same time as a general election allows a referendum question to influence the voters’ choice of candidates for elected office. George W. Bush’s campaign manager, Karl Rove, encouraged state Republican governments to put same-sex marriage on the ballot in 2004, energizing the Republican base to turn out and vote for Mr. Bush while opposing gay marriage.

In Canada, it is far from clear what the impact of a referendum on the Senate would be. A question about abolition might pump up the NDP, who have historically held that position, thereby blunting the threat from Justin Trudeau’s resurgent Liberals. However, the Conservatives might not want to take the chance of deflecting opinion away from free trade, balanced budgets, and tax cuts, which are their best issues.

There is, however, an option that might interest a strategically minded prime minister. The Act requires that any referendum question must be capable of being answered yes or no, but it also allows more than one question to be asked. Two or three carefully crafted questions might be able to bring a majority of voters on side with the Conservative proposition of an elected Senate – or allow the Conservatives to get on side with abolition, if that seemed to be the majority view.

The safest course is probably to make a campaign pledge to hold a Senate referendum after the 2015 election. But people for whom safety is the highest concern don’t become political leaders. Brian Mulroney, the last Conservative prime minister, famously “rolled the dice” over the Meech Lake and Charlottetown Accords. Will Mr. Harper roll the dice over the Senate?

Tom Flanagan is a Distinguished Fellow at the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary, and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.

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