Singh says abolishing the Senate would see Canadians better represented

TORONTO — Abolishing the Senate would give Canadians better representation, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said Tuesday, doubling down on his party's long-standing pledge to ditch Parliament's chamber of sober second thought.

"The reality is the Senate doesn't really represent people," he told reporters during a campaign stop in the Toronto riding that former NDP leader Jack Layton once held.

"They represent the Liberal party, they represent the Conservative party. They don't represent the people and their interests. They're more interested in being a mouthpiece for the political parties that appointed them."

Singh's pledge to abolish the Senate, though, would be no easy constitutional feat.

The Supreme Court of Canada has said abolishing the Senate requires the unanimous consent of the country's provinces.

A landmark ruling from the court in 2014 also said other reforms, such as electing senators or imposing term limits, proposed by the previous Conservative government, would require agreement from at least seven provinces representing half the national population.

"The Senate is one of Canada's foundational political institutions," said the ruling, which was attributed to the court as a whole. "It lies at the heart of the agreements that gave birth to the Canadian federation."

The New Democrats propose working with the provinces to get rid of the institution, which the party labels as undemocratic and unaccountable.

Following a drawn-out scandal over Senate spending, provinces had mixed reaction to calls to scrap the Senate.

Leaders of the Atlantic provinces, in particular, raised concern that killing the upper chamber would mean fewer voices in Parliament for a region of the country that often feels ignored and taken for granted, and raised concerns about what fewer regional senators would mean for each province's allotment of seats in the House of Commons.

The Constitution assures no province can have fewer seats in the House of Commons than it has in the Senate.

Singh didn't say how he would address this concern in provincial talks, but said doesn't believe the answer to those concerns is maintaining the Senate.

Justin Trudeau's Liberal government introduced reforms with an aim to make the Senate more independent by allowing Canadians to apply for Senate openings and having an advisory group recommend nominees for the prime minister to select for seats in the upper chamber.

But some critics say it remains a partisan body.

Conservative Senate whip Don Plett told The Canadian Press in June that he thought it was a "ridiculous sham" to suggest the Senate under Trudeau's reforms is any different.

He accused officially Independent senators of being partisan Liberals, in spirit if not in name, because all were appointed by Trudeau, who also had a say in who sat on the advisory body that made recommendations.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has said he would resume making partisan appointments, although he has also supported the idea of elected senators in the past. 

Singh linked the push to abolish the Senate with his party's proposal to reform Canada's voting system.

The NDP proposes immediately adopting a system of mixed-member proportional representation: a combination of legislators elected to represent particular geographic areas and others named from party lists so the standings in the Commons more closely matched the national popular vote. After two election cycles, the NDP promise a referendum on whether to keep the system.

"I believe people should have real representation, somebody who's going to fight for them. I also believe, to give people true representation, making sure that everyone's vote counts, and that's why I believe in proportional representation," Singh said.

"That's what I want to make happen."

Singh spent the day campaigning in Canada's biggest city, targeting two ridings the NDP narrowly lost to the Liberals in 2015: Layton's old riding of Toronto-Danforth and Parkdale-High-Park, the riding formerly held by Peggy Nash.

During a rally Tuesday afternoon on a street corner in Parkdale-High-Park, Singh once again pushed back against the idea of strategic voting, which Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau has been promoting in his appeals to "progressive" voters worried about a Conservative win.

Rather than voting to prevent something out of fear, Singh is encouraging Canadians to instead "vote for something," not against something else.

"You can vote out of hope, you can vote because you believe in a brighter future, you can vote New Democrat."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2019.

Teresa Wright, The Canadian Press