FUREY

Stubborn Mulcair must appoint senators

By Anthony Furey, Postmedia Network

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair responds to the government's plan to expand its military mission against Islamic State in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 24, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair responds to the government's plan to expand its military mission against Islamic State in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 24, 2015. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

The NDP continues to ride high in the polls and this week Leader Tom Mulcair is travelling across Ontario to keep building momentum.

One of the things he'll be doing is pitching his candidates. That's key to building public confidence in your leadership, proving you have a team behind you.

But Mulcair is at a greater disadvantage than Stephen Harper and Justin Trudeau on one important team matter: Even if the NDP wins the House of Commons, it has no senators.

Will he change this? Hard to say. Mulcair's default answer to any question about the Senate is "abolish!"

It makes for a good sound bite and plays well with an electorate that's downright hostile to the whole concept of the upper chamber these days. But it's a lousy plan for governance.

The Senate is, after all, the flip side of the coin in our bicameral parliament. Bills have to be passed in both houses to become law.

Right now the Conservatives have 47 senators and the Liberals 29 — and they're joined by 7 independents. As there are 22 vacancies, this gives the Conservatives a majority — an effective veto over anything that comes their way.

Would they use it to thwart the NDP? Both senators and Senate officials I've spoken to downplay this possibility. A lot of people take seriously John A. Macdonald's view that the Senate should "never set itself in opposition against the deliberate and understood wishes of the people.”

In other words, Conservatives may be inspired by their political philosophy when tweaking and moderating an NDP bill, but they wouldn't flat out reject it just because it doesn't fit their partisan leanings.

But, technically, they could. Remember, senators more or less killed C-290, the single sports betting bill that passed unanimously in the House of Commons, by letting it die off earlier this month.

That's why it's folly for Mulcair to go about his business pitching his vision of Canada to the voters as if the Senate plays no role in shepherding that vision.

What's the point of voting NDP if its leader isn't serious about getting legislation turned into law? Mulcair needs to send some signal that he understands the situation he'll be in, rather than being dismissive of the Senate's mere existence. So far he's done nothing of the sort.

Even if Harper fills all 22 vacancies before the election, which is unlikely, Mulcair will have a chance to appoint someone in February, when the next vacancy arises with the mandatory retirement of Harper appointee Irving Gerstein.

One senator is actually all it takes to form the government in the Senate. One is so few it may seem no different than zero. It's a long shot from a majority vote, that's for sure.

Except without a single senator the government has absolutely no one there to provide their official perspective on issues and debates. How strange it would be to have an entire session of Parliament in which there isn't a single voice from the government.

The upper chamber can't be expected to get behind legislation if the government can't even be bothered to show up and advocate for it.

Mulcair won't look like a hypocrite if he does appoint senators. He'll look pragmatic. He's got options: He can make them agree to shortened term limits. Or only appoint pro-abolition senators and continue his abolish crusade from within.

Whichever path he's planning to take, he's got to stop being stubborn and tell Canadians what it is.

 


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