This is an excerpt from a report published today by The Federal Idea, a Montreal think-tank. The full report can be downloaded at www.federalidea.ca.
In the summer of 2013, mounting opposition to Bill C-377 in the Senate stalled the progress of its passage. The bill is designed to compel labour unions to disclose to the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) a detailed statement of their finances on an ongoing basis. In turn, the agency would be expected to post the material online, thereby making it available to the public.
This development brings the inadequacies of the NDP's position on the Senate – the party seeks to abolish the institution – into the clear light of day. The reasons are obvious. First, in its role as the official opposition party in the House of Commons, the NDP was unable to muster the slightest impact on the bill's merry passage. In the Senate, by contrast, the senators opposed to the bill managed at least to slow its approval there, by demanding hearings on it and by getting amendments made to it, thereby necessitating that the amended bill be sent back to the House for further consideration. Second, without the opposition in the Senate, most Canadians would have no idea about the very existence of the bill, let alone its ramifications for unions across the country.
The NDP is the only federal political party with a hard line position in favour of abolishing the Senate. Supposing that were a possibility, some obvious questions arise. What would the federal government do without the Senate? What would Parliament do without it? Would it matter?
Without the Senate, Parliament loses the function of sober second thought. Given the utility of the function, it is worth asking whether it could be supplied some other way. For example, could the federal public service supply it? The answer is a resounding no. In theory, the public service has some independence from the government of the day. But not the kind of independence that is required by the sober–second-thought function. The Senate's treatment of the government's bills on Senate reform is a perfect example. The Senate was able to hold hearings on some of these bills, seeking the opinion of experts from across the country. Some of them thought the government was authorized to proceed as it chose, others did not. Such hearings serve an important public education function, one of the most important functions that Parliament discharges. In the course of these hearings, the attentive public learned about potential constitutional issues associated with the government's bid to reform the Senate. The process slowed. Time passed. And now the country awaits judicial opinion. Sober second thought, indeed.
Does it matter? Yes, obviously it does. Were the Senate to be abolished, Canada would have a unicameral Parliament. Not a federal Parliament. A unicameral Parliament with no institutionalized provincial or territorial representation within it. It would be a disintegrative institutional step, not a cohesive step. Since the NDP does not have an anti-capitalist ground on which to base its case to abolish the Senate (at least it has not used one), there is no worthy ground left to it. The position is constitutionally and institutionally reckless. The real risk for the NDP is the possibility of Senate reform. Should a consensus develop in favour of reform, then the NDP will not be part of the debate.
Jennifer Smith is professor emeritus, Dalhousie University