Harper's setting Liberals up for a fall

PM is backing referendum bill knowing the Liberal senators will kill it

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The Gazette, Monday, November 12, 2007

When Hugh Segal proposed a referendum to abolish the Senate last month, he was suggesting a private member's bill with little prospect of passing in the Liberal dominated Senate.

But as a Conservative senator, he has friends in high places. The government leader in the Senate, Marjory LeBreton, indicated that she had no problem with Segal's idea. And Stephen Harper, long an advocate of an elected Senate, has given a clear heads up.

In subsequent interviews, Segal made it clear he was proposing to abolish the appointed Senate only to reform it. Once a motion was adopted by the Senate and approved by cabinet, a Yes committee would favour abolition and a No side would oppose it.

Segal wanted to transform a No into a Yes, as the forces of renewed federalism did on the No side of the 1980 Quebec referendum on sovereignty-association. Segal's No committee would advocate an elected Senate, and if that side carried the day in a national referendum, to be held on a stand-alone basis apart from an election, the provinces would be hard-put to oppose such an outcome, even though such a change to the Upper House would constitutionally require their consent.

All of which was very interesting, but somewhat hypothetical, in that the Liberal majority in the Senate would have killed Segal's motion.

But then, something interesting happened. Speaking after an NDP strategy meeting in Winnipeg, Jack Layton picked up Segal's idea and ran with it.

He said the NDP would bring a motion in the House for a referendum to abolish the Senate to be held at the same time as next federal election, whenever that might occur. That would be timely and cost efficient.

And then, something important happened. Stephen Harper picked up the phone, called Layton, and endorsed the idea. Harper is clearly on the same page as Segal. As the prime minister said of the Senate last week: "If it can't be reformed ... it will have to be abolished."

The NDP's motion will come to the floor of the House as early as tomorrow. With the support of the Conservatives, there are enough votes to assure its adoption in the minority House.

So an idea that would have died in the Senate, is now assured passage on the floor of the House. The Bloc Québécois might oppose it, since all parties in the National Assembly approved a motion last week insisting on Quebec's constitutional right to be consulted. But the Bloc is not a great fan of an appointed Senate, and referendums have been at the heart of the sovereignty movement since René Lévesque first proposed one in the 1970s.

This leaves the Liberals, opposing the idea of a referendum on the Senate.

"It shows he's not serious," Stéphane Dion said of Harper last week. "He's playing with the institutions of our country in order to have a diversion from his own problems."

Actually, if there's any leader who needs a diversion from his own problems, it's Dion.

But he went on: "It will be a waste of money, this referendum," and he called it "bad federalism," noting the constitutional niceties and the right of the provinces to override a non-binding referendum.

But that was Segal's point in proposing it - the provinces would be hard put to thwart the will of the voters, as expressed in a referendum. Since the Charlottetown referendum of 1992, the unwritten rule is that constitutional change must be approved by voters in all provinces. No provincial government would dare oppose the will of its own voters, either to abolish the Senate or reform it.

Dion's problem here is that he's thinking like a professor, not a politician.

He can't see the whole field, and he's not thinking his way down it.

Consider what would happen after such a motion passes the House. Harper would then have the authority under the 1992 referendum legislation to have a question approved by cabinet.

But what if he decided, as a courtesy, to refer the motion to the Senate?

The Liberals, having voted against it in the House, could then use their majority to hold it up in the Senate.

The appointed senators would then vote against Senate reform, even though the referendum was approved by the Commons.

As someone has said of Harper, while his opponents are playing checkers, he is playing chess. Checkmate.

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