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Canadians Want a Prime Minister Who Will Get Rid of Their Senate

Spending scandals, criminal charges, and a crazy amount of undemocratic shenanigans have made the dream of abolishing the Senate possible.

by Justin Ling
Jul 20 2015, 9:20pm

Image via Daily VICE

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

A sizable chunk of the Canadian Senate is facing misspending allegations, investigations into sexual misconduct, or criminal fraud charges.

So maybe it's no surprise that more than half of Canadians want a leader to come out and promise to abolish the Senate.

A Forum Research poll, conducted for Daily VICE, shows that Canadians are not only committed to getting rid of the unelected upper chamber, but are considering it when it comes to how they'll cast their vote in October.

The numbers are part of VICE's plan to map out what will drive votes in the upcoming election, slated for October 19. So far, we've found out that Canadians really want a leader who will legalize marijuana and repeal Stephen Harper's controversial anti-terrorism legislation.

When asked, 36 percent said they'd be very likely to switch their vote to a party that supports abolition, while 20 percent said they'd be somewhat likely to do so.

Only 30 percent said it likely wouldn't have any bearing on their vote.

This is not all that surprising, given the number of Senate scandals that have come up in recent years.

To give you a brief recap, here's a shortlist of current and past senators who've been in trouble over the past few years: Mike Duffy (fraud charges), Mac Harb (fraud charges), Irving Gerstein (avoided election spending charges thanks to a plea deal), Raymond Lavigne (convicted of fraud), Pamela Wallin (under investigation), Patrick Brazeau (sexual assault charges), Don Meredith (allegations of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment), Leo Housakos (named in corruption probe), and 30 others who are currently under investigation for varying degrees of inappropriate or poorly documented expense claims.

Then there are the various shenanigans that the Senate has pulled. For one, they actively worked to kill a piece of legislation that would afford human rights protections for trans people. Then the Conservative majority overturned the rules in order to force through a bill to force unions to open their books, which has been opposed by everyone from the Canadian Bar Association to the National Hockey League Players' Association, a government minister and the Conservative Senators themselves, from a few years prior. More recently, the Senate authored a study that recommended a wildly controversial certification course to make sure that imams aren't advocating terrorism.

So it's not surprising that the Senate isn't popular.

But what does that mean for the three main federal parties?

It's obviously good news for the NDP, as the party has supported Senate abolition for over eight years, dating back to when they were an agrarian party hellbent on abolishing capitalism.

"I'm going to be turning on the light to Senate abolition," NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told the CBC. "I'm going to work non-stop."

Of the NDP supporters who answered the poll, 63 percent said the party's pro-abolition stance was something that drives their vote.

The numbers may offer some direction for Stephen Harper, and his hand-wringing over what to do. The Conservatives had a go at reforming the Senate, in an effort to fulfill a longstanding promise made by the Reform Party to hold Senate elections and enact term limits for the members of the upper chamber. That failed when the Supreme Court told them they would need to consult the provinces if they want to make any substantive changes. The party, however, has always said that if reform won't work, they're down with abolition.

Firebrand Quebecois libertarian Maxime Bernier, a junior minister in the government, came out swinging in favor of a referendum on abolition: "The only option we have is to try to abolish the Senate," he told reporters at a party convention last year.

And their supporters seem to agree. Over 60 percent of Conservative voters want a leader who will get behind turfing the red chamber and its crazy-long appointments. (Patrick Brazeau, unless he is convicted of a crime, could remain as a senator until 2049.)

The Liberals, on the other hand, want to maintain more-or-less the status quo.

Justin Trudeau is in favor of appointing better senators, by creating some sort of advisory body to help him pick qualified Canadians to sit in the cushy upper chamber, and he would stop requiring that his senators sit as Liberals. Beyond that, he wouldn't change all that much.

Trudeau already kicked out all of the senators from his caucus, yet those senators still choose to sit and vote as Liberals. Nevertheless, he says, having a Senate that is disconnected from the House of Commons means it can do real work.

"The Senate needs to change," Trudeau told VICE in a sit-down interview about his democratic reform plans. "Quite frankly the Liberals are the only party with a plan to do that. Mr. Harper doesn't want to talk about it anymore and Mr. Mulcair is promising things that he knows he can't deliver."

Trudeau accuses the NDP of wanting messy constitutional battles over the Senate that will ultimately fail to fix the Senate at all.

The theory goes that, if a Prime Minister were to try to get the provinces onboard for abolition, a single hold-out—like Quebec or PEI, both of whom are wildly over-represented in the Senate—would block efforts to get rid of the upper chamber.

Yet advocates like Bernier and Mulcair might be on to something, if this Forum poll is any indication.

A majority in every area of the country, except Alberta, said not only would they support abolition, but that they'd be looking to line up behind a leader who promises to get it done. And the two areas of the country often cited as the hold-outs, Atlantic Canada and Quebec, are the most likely to say so—60 percent of the East Coast and 61 percent of Quebec.

One way or the other, whoever wins in October is going to have a headache on their hands. The Senate is currently one-fifth empty, and heavily stacked with Conservatives. Any efforts to abolish it—or, really, any effort to pass any legislation—will have to go through the upper chamber.

The poll, conducted between June 15 and 16, surveyed 1,281 randomly-selected Canadians and is considered accurate +/- 3 percent, 19 times out of 20.

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