Friday, April 18, 2014

The Toronto Mayoralty Race: Does Ford have a chance to win?

Rob Ford kicked off his 2014 re-election campaign last night at the Toronto Congress Centre, which is located not far from Toronto's western boundary.  In the middle of Ford's speech according to this tweet, the hall looked like this from the back:

Rob Ford Campaign Launch April 17, 2014
According to the Toronto Star report on the event there was "no crowd estimate but about half of the 290 tables set up in the cavernous centre were empty." Another estimate I saw suggested a crowd of 2000. Regardless, if your campaign manager can only partly fill the venue for your campaign launch he should be fired. This may be difficult if the manager is also your brother Doug.

The media coverage of this fiasco was, in TC's view, generous to Ford to a fault, not at all what one might expect from the evil media elite. And inevitably there was another media story, this one from, suggesting Ford could win despite currently trailing in the polls. Anyone who has read this blog before will know that TC does not believe this will happen.

The new Forum poll released April 15 and alluded to above does have some interesting findings beyond the top line voter preference numbers all of which point clearly to a Ford defeat.

Let's look at them in turn.  Here is how Forum summarizes the race in their press release:
TORONTO APRIL 15th, 2014 ‐ In a random sampling of public opinion taken by the Forum Poll™ among 882 Toronto voters, one third would vote Olivia Chow for mayor if the municipal election were held today (34%), while a quarter or just more would vote either Rob Ford (27%) or John Tory (24%). Neither Karen Stintz (6%) nor David Soknacki (4%) are contenders. Very few have no opinion in the race (5%).
On the face of it Ford is in second place 7 percentage points behind leader Olivia Chow, apparently still well within range. However, there are other numbers and questions in the survey that help us understand the race. For example, one question simply asked respondents if they would vote for Ford in the municipal election in October or not.

Will vote for Rob Ford               29%
Will not vote for Rob Ford         63%
Don't know                                  8%

Another question asks "Which candidate would you never vote for?"  This is an interesting question because of its declarative emphasis. It is a good question for eliciting strong feelings. Of those expressing an opinion (I am excluding the "Don't Know" here) 56% say they would never vote for Rob Ford; the only other candidate who evokes negative feelings to any degree is Olivia Chow who comes in at 29%. The winner here is John Tory as only 3% say they would never vote for him.

These two responses illustrate what should be obvious: Ford is a highly polarizing figure. A large part of the electorate is clearly going to do whatever seems necessary to defeat him.

I have seen many news stories which report that Ford still has a reasonably strong approval rate. This survey includes approval numbers for all candidates so we can directly compare Ford's approval numbers to his opponents.  Here are the results:

Ford  Stintz Tory Chow Soknacki
Approve 46 46 65 60 47
Disapprove 54 54 35 40 53

Seen from this perspective both Tory and Chow have much higher approval ratings than the mayor. They are the two strong candidates in this race. Unless Karen Stintz and David Soknacki can start moving their numbers up soon they are likely going to be forced from the race by September.

It appears highly likely that there will be an Ontario election this summer, which will put the mayor's race on hold and, depending on the outcome, could have an impact of the results. Restarting the race in the dog days of August is not likely to work well for the minor candidates.

My view is that come fall there will be a competitive race for mayor between John Tory and Olivia Chow with Ford trailing. Depending on campaign dynamics either Tory or Chow could win although Chow has the edge now. Ford Nation is, compared to supporters for other candidates, generally lower income and less well-educated. My view is that poll results in the autumn will discourage turnout among an already low turnout group, meaning Ford's actual vote is likely to trail his share in the polls.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Quebec election: "You don't need a weatherman....

... to know which way the wind blows", goes the old Bob Dylan song. It applies well to this Quebec election, which has had plenty of twists, turns and surprises but whose outcome now seems clear.

The final polls on the Quebec election will come out this weekend but the verdict can be discerned without looking at the polls. By the way the polling numbers can all be found on this Wikipedia page.

Consider this: Pauline Marois promised tax cuts on April 3rd (after the budget is balanced). An appealing campaign promise in Quebec with its allegedly high taxes, right? Except it comes much too late in the campaign to do any good. Nearly 18% of Quebec voters had already voted in advance polls prior to yesterday, about 24% of the total vote we will see come April 7, if we use the 2012 turnout as a benchmark. If tax cuts are an important way to win votes perhaps it would have been be more beneficial to make the promise before any voters got to the polls. When parties begin to behave in an erratic and desperate pattern, you know they are in trouble.

There are good reasons to be cautious about polls in Quebec. Most of them are online surveys, a method TC thinks should be regarded as experimental. Given that we haven't seen a reliable poll yet there is some uncertainty, but all the non-poll indicators suggest the Liberals will easily win a majority.

It appears that the PQ coalition among francophones is fracturing - movement to the right to the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) and movement to the left in the form of the Québec solidaire and some to Option Nationale (a party formed by dissidents from the PQ). The movements have been complicated. It seems that mid-campaign there was movement from the CAQ to the Liberals based on antipathy to a referendum. More recently the CAQ has been doing better based on leader François Legault`s performance in the second TV debate.

The PQ campaign has been an amazing display of incompetence. They let themselves be dazzled by the Pierre-Karl Péledeau (or PKP as he is known) recruitment, not recognizing the downside to his candidacy. By highlighting the prospect of a referendum during the announcement PKP and the PQ aroused all the latent hostility to holding a referendum. The PQ also ignored the potential for having a notorious strike-breaker in their midst to drive traditional left of centre PQ voters to Québec solidaire. There could be a post-election bloodbath in the PQ ranks.

There was an excellent report by Terence McKenna on the April 3rd edition of the CBC National that is well worth watching.

One of the extraordinary items in the report is about the Liberal leader Philippe Couillard's defence of his assertion in a TV debate that learning in English can be helpful to Quebeckers in the workplace. In spite of attacks on him from nationalists a couple of days after the debate he said:
"We absolutely want to protect our identity, our language... But it has nothing to do with the fact that we want to give our children the chance to learn another language. Is there a parent in Quebec that doesn’t want their child to learn another language? No."
On the face of it this should have been fatal in a Quebec election campaign given the anxiety of many francophones about the future of the French language in Quebec. However, it is Pauline Marois who has resorted to desperate late promises about taxes, not Couillard. She has also tried to kickstart her campaign by promoting the so-called "Charter of Values", but as I noted in my previous post it ranks low among the considerations of voters who might be expected to support it, and it continues to cause deep divisions in the ranks of those who favour Quebec independence.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Current State of Canadian Politics: Can the federal Liberals win a majority in 2015?

Recently NDP Leader Tom Mulcair discussed his willingness to join a coalition with the Liberals after the next election:
“We’ve always said we’re ready to work with other parties. We’re a progressive party. We want to get results,” NDP leader Thomas Mulcair told reporters when asked if he would be willing to form a coalition with Mr. Trudeau after the election. However, Liberal leader Justin Trudeau rejected the idea suggesting the Liberals would focus on a "winning" strategy.
This incident tells us that the NDP thinks there is a strong possibility that the NDP and the Liberals together can form a majority in the House of Commons after the next election, while the Liberals perceive that they have a chance to form a majority government on their own. With everyone's attention on the Quebec election, perhaps this is as good a time as any to ask whether or not the federal Liberal Party can realistically expect to win a majority in the 2015 federal election.

Based on my tracking of the polls and my seat projections TCNorris has reached some conclusions about this. Based on the trend line of the past year a Liberal majority is unlikely (there is one posssible scenario I will discuss below). Equally a Conservative majority is unlikely, but a plurality is possible. The most likely outcome would see the NDP plus the Liberals holding a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. There would be no way for the Conservatives to construct a majority through the support of other parties. Quickly now, when did this situation last appear in Canadian politics?  The answer is 1972.  In other words it has been over forty years since we have seen a situation at the national level where there is a potential for governance based on Liberal-NDP cooperation (this is what happened in the 1972-74 parliament). This could include either a coalition or an accord.

The chart below summarizes the numbers (they date back to June 2013) that form the trend line referred to above:
It is the percentage of seats won that matters. To help clarify I have expressed what it would mean both in the House as it will be in 2015 and what it would mean for today's House if it was still in place. A majority in the current 308 seat house is 155, in the 338 seat House it is 170.

The two parties do have some experience with working together. The NDP supported the Trudeau Liberals in exchange for various concessions in the 1972 to 1974 parliament. The Liberals and NDP attempted to form a coalition after the 2008 election, but needed the support of the Bloc to make it a possibility. The two parties did coalesce in Saskatchewan when the NDP failed to win a working majority in the 1999 election. The NDP was a very dominant partner in that arrangement. In Ontario the two parties negotiated an accord in 1985 that ousted the Ontario PCs from power after 43 years in office. The agreement permitted the Liberals to form a government for two years in exchange for implementing some NDP priorities.
Some such as former Harper advisor Tom Flanagan believe that the public would oppose such a coalition in 2015, as they did in 2008. This strikes me as mistaken. Given the growing antipathy to Harper on the centre and left it seems likely that the public attitude welcoming change that prevailed in Ontario 1985 is the more likely outcome. The public will judge a coalition based on the context, not on some preconceived notion of whether it is a good or bad idea.

If we look more closely at the messages the polls are sending about the state of politics in Canada right now in the various regions it helps us understand our current situation.

Atlantic Canada
In Atlantic Canada, the Liberals have taken a big lead.  Their average support in the polls is at 50%, an astronomically high number putting them 27 percentage points ahead of their nearest competitor, the Conservatives. Were this repeated elsewhere a majority would be in sight. Why are the Liberals so high?

Let me suggest a few factors. One is simply the fact that the Liberal brand in Atlantic Canada has been relatively strong over time. The current state of provincial politics also helps (there are good provincial poll numbers available in Atlantic Canada from Corporate Research Associates). There is a newly-elected Liberal government in Nova Scotia still enjoying its honeymoon. As Nova Scotia is about 40% of Atlantic Canada this alone has a big impact. In addition there are unpopular PC governments in both Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick, both likely to lose the next provincial elections there to the Liberals. The incumbent Liberal government in PEI remains popular. In polling there is a spillover between the federal and provincial realms. Some respondents become confused about which level of government is being asked about. Given its strong brand this helps the Liberals in Atlantic Canada, and likely hurts the NDP, which still suffers from the unpopularity of the former Dexter government in Nova Scotia. Finally, it is clear that the Harper government is quite unpopular here.

Quebec dislikes the Harper government more than any other province or region so the Conservatives are not going to increase their representation but opposition is split among the Liberals, the NDP and the Bloc Québecois with the latter two parties doing disproportionately well among francophones, while the Liberals are the dominant force among Quebec anglophones and allophones. Liberal strength has grown here but they still trail among francophones.

Ontario is the biggest province and also where the federal Liberals have gained the least since 2011. The troubles of the provincial Liberals are a factor here. Ironically the situation in Ontario suggests one possible federal Liberal majority government scenario. For it to occur the Wynne Liberals would need to lose the expected spring election to the Hudak PCs. For maximum effect a PC majority would likely be necessary. My suspicion is that Tim Hudak would make the Conservative brand name quite toxic within a year in Ontario. Both the federal Liberals and NDP could benefit. If the federal Liberals could increase their Ontario support significantly at the expense of the Conservatives (with NDP gains held to a bare minimum) a majority might come in sight.

All this depends on a set of events that have not yet begun to take place. And Ontario alone would not be enough. The Liberals would still need to finish a strong first in Quebec and must do exceptionally well elsewhere including B.C. I cannot stress enough that this is an unlikely scenario, but one cannot completely rule it out. It is also possible but not likely that the NDP will find a way to get ahead of the Liberals. This could happen if the public acquires a stronger sense of Justin Trudeau's weaknesses.

The Prairie Provinces
The Liberals are poised to make significant gains in Manitoba in part because of unpopularity on the part of the NDP provincial government. Something close to the status quo prevails in Saskatchewan, although the NDP seem likely to gain a few seats here as a result of the redrawn boundaries.

Remarkably, the Conservatives are experiencing significant losses in Alberta. On average the party is down about 14 points since 2011. It is enough to give the Liberals a few seats if it holds through an election. I do think it is slightly overstated. The "Other" category is high in some surveys and I suspect that these are respondents who confuse federal with provincial politics, and volunteer the Wild Rose Party as their preference.

British Columbia
This is where the popularity of the Harper government has declined the most. It is the Liberals who have gained the most from it although their 13.4% share of the popular vote in B.C. in 2011 was quite low by historical standards. For example, their current poll average of 30.6% is close to the 28.6% share the Liberals achieved in B.C. in 2004. NDP support is down a little since 2011.

One possible liability for the Liberals here is a difficult term for the BC Liberal provincial government. Although it is a coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives, the government is led by Christie Clark, a federal Liberal. Based on recent history it does seems likely that the B.C. government will get into political trouble between now and 2015, with the NDP the beneficiary.

TCNorris does not think that a Liberal majority in 2015 is a realistic expectation. Justin Trudeau and company should keep their minds open to other governing possibilities. Thomas Mulcair to his credit just gave us a preview of what conversation we should expect after the next election: what form should Liberal-NDP cooperation take.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

The enigma of Quebec politics

As we head once more into a Quebec electoral campaign I am reminded of when I went door to door with a federal Liberal candidate in the 1988 election in one of those mixed anglo/allo/francophone constituencies that dot the island of Montreal. We came upon a group of francophone men standing in an open garage facing the street and chatting on a gray rainy afternoon.

Their response to the vote-seeking politician was guarded and non-committal. The candidate observed as we walked away that he found that francophones were generally reluctant to give their political views. He explained it was because of the division within Quebec between those who believed in Canada and those who supported independence. A wide gulf between the two visions is found within francophone Quebec families and this often makes politics a sensitive topic best avoided.

I think this partly explains why Quebec has so frequently been the source of so many political surprises, including the defeat of the Lesage regime in 1966, the first victory of the Parti Québecois in 1976, and most recently the unexpectedly strong showing of the Quebec Liberals in 2012. It also accounts for why, after the divisions of the 1995 referendum, so many francophone Quebeckers were allergic to the prospect of another referendum campaign.

When the votes were tallied in the 2012 election the outcome wound up being closer than anticipated, generally because the polls underestimated Liberal support (in a few cases PQ support was greatly over-estimated), a phenomenon that has appeared many times in the past. The final election survey by CROP, while understating the Liberals, accurately anticipated that the PQ would capture 32% of the popular vote.

When CROP, which has long enjoyed a good reputation as a Quebec pollster, released a poll in February giving the PQ 40% with the Quebec Liberals trailing behind at 34% and the CAQ (Coalition Avenir Québec) a distant 16%, election fever began to warm up a cold Quebec winter.

When a political party forms a minority government, it is always looking for an opportunity to turn that into a majority. No doubt the PQ did some of their own polling to firm up their view that such an opportunity was at hand and has now called an election for April 7, 2014. However a poll released the same day the election was called by Léger Marketing gives the PQ just a two point lead over the Quebec Liberals. The PQ cannot be certain that it will win a majority. My own model that converts poll numbers into seats suggests the CROP February poll would have given the PQ a small majority, while the new Léger poll would leave them just one seat over a majority.

Here are my projections for the CROP February Poll and the just released Léger poll:

A key factor here is the CAQ vote, which has dropped over the past year and a half.  It is low enough now that the party would win just a handful of seats. This means the chances of either a PQ or Liberal majority are high unless the CAQ recovers substantial ground during the campaign. I estimate they need 23% to win at least 10 seats (they won 19 with 27% in 2012). Although they start off weak this time, the CAQ also started out in a similar position during the 2012 campaign averaging 21% in the opening surveys but improving their position significantly over the course of the campaign.

The two polls share one characteristic in common that should give rise to additional doubt about the what April 7th holds in store. This characteristic was not a feature of the CROP survey in 2012 that accurately predicted the PQ's 32% vote share. Most Quebec polling comes from Léger and CROP and in recent years they have relied extensively on online surveys, a methodology that I believe should still be regarded as experimental. As it turned out in 2012 so did CROP. If you read the methodological statement in its last election poll (at the bottom of the news story), one finds that CROP used traditional telephone polling methods for its final election poll. I hope we will see the firm do the same this year and that we will see more telephone polling generally.

Given that almost all the Quebec polling we have seen since the last election has been online and the results even there are close, there remains considerable uncertainty about what we will see come the evening of April 7.

Charter of Values and the Prospects for Quebec Independence
A key focus of debate will be the so-called proposed Quebec Charter of Values. While a majority say they support it, a Léger poll on the topic from January reports that it ranks fourth in a list of issues that respondents say will be the most important vote determinant in the next election, with health care and economic/fiscal issues ranking ahead of the Charter. It should be noted that this type of response in a poll can be misleading. For example, if the public is pessimistic and thinks that what will happen in health care or the economy won't be affected much regardless of who wins, a lesser consideration where the outcome will matter, such as the Charter of Values, could be more important.

A key finding for me was that among francophones in this survey only 30 per cent strongly favoured the Charter. Those who say they "somewhat" rather "strongly" support something are expressing uncertainty about how they feel. It is the "strongly"category that really matters when judging how the public feels about issues. Further, it is likely that those who strongly favour the Charter consist mainly of core PQ voters. It remains unclear how many of this group currently favour other parties and might therefore be tempted to switch by the Charter.

In the longer run the PQ would like to see the Charter overturned by the Supreme Court of Canada and thus hopefully, from their perspective, provide the political basis for a Quebec referendum on independence. Given that the Charter has seriously divided the pro-independence movement in Quebec, it seems highly unlikely that this could work even if the PQ achieved its hoped-for scenario. For example, former PQ Premier Jacques Parizeau is among those who have denounced the Charter of Values.

Support overall for independence is not only weak, running far below 50%, when you look at the demographics of support for independence (on page 9 of this January 2014 Léger poll) by age, it is clear that it is concentrated disproportionately among the baby boom, roughly those aged 45-65. Support is weaker among both younger voters and older voters.

The polls are close, the political significance of the Charter of Values is still unexplored territory, and support for sovereignty is weak. Quebec strikes me as in a transitional phase of its history and has not yet found a clear sense of itself going forward. It remains an enigma.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Justin Trudeau's Strategic Focus on the Conservatives

Toronto Star journalist Susan Delacourt has a generally good record at reading the intentions and thinking of the federal Liberal Party.  So one ought to take note of this report in the Saturday Star:
MONTREAL—Justin Trudeau is telling his party that it needs to woo disaffected Conservatives to the Liberal fold in the 2015 election, setting the stage for a large, red-blue battle when the next campaign rolls around.
Though he was speaking to a room filled with thousands of Liberals at their Montreal convention on Saturday, Trudeau aimed many of his words at an unexpected audience — Conservatives and their supporters.
“People in Ottawa talk about the ‘Conservative base’ as if it is some angry mob to be feared,” Trudeau said. “They’re wrong. As all of you know, the 5.8 million Canadians who voted Conservative aren’t your enemies. They’re your neighbours.”
Trudeau’s conciliatory words in the Conservatives’ direction were the strongest sign yet that the Liberals aren’t looking just on the left for votes in 2015, but on the centre-right as well, among people who are disillusioned with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s government.
Apart from the obvious point that parties look to pick up support wherever they can, the emphasis of the Liberals in convention and Justin Trudeau in his speech (as quoted in Delacourt's report) was on wooing Tory votes.

The chart below clarifies where the Liberals have been losing ground. The Conservative line incorporates the Reform/Canadian Alliance vote, as that is where votes departing the Mulroney/Campbell PCs mostly went in 1993 and beyond.  For purposes of simplification, I have ignored the Greens and the BQ in the chart. However, it should be noted that Green vote strength, which only showed up in 2004, likely came mostly from the NDP and the Liberals.

Party vote shares - 1988 election to 2011 election

The Liberals are doing well in the polls.  However, even to win back Conservative seats in the Toronto suburbs (for example) one key for the Liberals would be to win over some NDP votes there.  In 2011 the NDP won about 18% of the votes in the 905 belt around Toronto.

My impression is that both the Liberal party strategists and the Ottawa media continue to underestimate the strength of the NDP. Canadian politics have many complexities and nuances that one ignores at one's peril.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Ontario by-elections and a spring election

I have seen a good deal of analysis/speculation arising out last week's by-elections about the current state of Ontario politics.  There were, however, only two among 107 seats up.  Better to take a broader look at the situation.  Below is a table that provides the absolute percentage shift in voting intentions between 2011 and the various by-election dates in each of the constituencies:

I would make the following observations:

  • There is considerable variability in how much preferences shifted when we take all the results into account. 
  • Overall, the Liberals have lost ground.
  • Overall the Conservatives have gained ground but, with one exception, not much. The exception was Etobicoke-Lakeshore won by Toronto Deputy Mayor and Councillor Doug Holiday. Apart from this one result, where it was the particular candidate that seemed to matter most, their gains are unimpressive.
  • The NDP has had four big wins: in Kitchener-Waterloo, London West, Windsor-Tecumseh and Niagara Falls. If there is a common thread it is that these ridings are all urban, mostly within southwestern Ontario cities. Their gains appear to have come mostly from the Liberals. The NDP results in the other constituencies suggest not much change.
Polls and the by-elections strongly suggest Liberal weakness, largely because of the McGuinty government's record rather than sins on the part of Kathleen Wynne.
I can do a calculation that projects individual riding numbers into province-wide results. My overall impression from these results, which are useful but need to be taken with a large grain of salt, is that for all of Hudak's fumbles it appears he is heading for victory albeit with a minority of the seats. One reason for that is that Liberal voters seem much more inclined to view the NDP as a preferred second choice, it would appear for mainly negative considerations about how the Conservatives are viewed, more than strong positive attraction to the NDP. Horwath and company are effectively playing the none-of-the-above role at the moment in Ontario politics, making few statements about policy themselves (even to the point of not commenting on the minimum wage). A post by-elections Ipsos online poll puts the PCs ahead. However, like other online polls it needs to be treated with caution.
I suspect that a key reason for Conservative weakness is Hudak's record of adopting highly conservative policies such as 'right-to- work'. I noted he blamed union 'elites' for his defeat in Niagara Falls, a constituency the Conservatives should have won if they were truly headed for a majority in the next election. Since the policy is explicitly aimed at weakening unions, how did Hudak expect them to react? Perhaps a little moderation and circumspection would have served him well here.
All this suggests that the campaign will matter a great deal.  I do think we will see a spring election. If the opposition parties did not force one they would be committing themselves to allowing the Liberals a full term. 
Kathleen Wynne must bear the weight of a Liberal decade in government and the accumulation of grievances that brings, as well as all the burdens that a stagnating economy has generated.
I suspect she will be a formidable campaigner. Overall I find her more much more impressive as an individual political talent then either Hudak or Horwath. The Liberals won't go down without a fight but the current political climate and circumstances are running strongly against the Liberals.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Can we have a non-partisan Senate?

This would be the long-term outcome of Justin Trudeau's recent proposal should it succeed in gaining wide acceptance and be fully implemented. The heat from the Senate scandal, which has now resulted in charges against one former Liberal senator, clearly played a part in prompting the Liberals to abandon many decades of partisan appointments to the Senate. It represents potentially radical change.

In its early years, the Senate was a relatively well-accepted part of Parliament and would from time to time reject bills from the House of Commons or amend them. Following the death of Sir John A. Macdonald in 1891 two among the four prime ministers who served until the 1896 election were senators. Overall, throughout its history the appointed Senate has deferred to the elected House of Commons.

Nominally  the Senate is the chamber of sober second thought. One justification often cited for the Senate has been its role in reviewing House of Commons bills and correcting flawed legislative drafting. However, the Senate’s role in the legislative review process has been limited in part because it has often been controlled by the same political party that controls the House of Commons.  The Senate rarely challenges the government on substantive matters, especially if the same party controls both.

History of recent partisanship

Partisan conflict did ratchet up after 1984 when the Mulroney government with its overwhelming elected majority came into conflict with a Liberal-controlled Senate. I happened to be an eyewitness to the beginning of this era and observed it unfolding. I produced a documentary on the episode in the context of efforts back then to get Senate reform for the CBC program The Journal. The documentary is currently available online at the CBC Digital Archives.

The program came about in part because of then-emerging efforts to get Senate reform. In January 1985 the Liberal Senate delayed a government borrowing bill on the technically appropriate grounds that the government's spending estimates ought to have been revealed before the government asked Parliament for the authority to finance this spending. This might seem a minor technical matter. However, it drew partisan fire from the PC government, especially Brian Mulroney and strong criticism in the press, humiliating the Senators. The reaction seemed overheated given that it was a brief delay (about five weeks) for what amounted to technical reasons.
Prime Minister Mulroney convened a first ministers meeting in April and later introduced a constitutional amendment (never enacted) that would limit the Senate's powers to short delays of government bills. 
Allan MacEachen is on the left
between Pierre Trudeau and John
Munro with Jean Chrétien back right 
The Liberals in the Senate were led by the experienced and wily Allan MacEachen, an a former Trudeau cabinet minister and house leader. I sensed when we interviewed him a few months after the borrowing bill controversy that he was still seething from the opprobrium directed at him during that episode.
So I was not at all surprised when MacEachen's Liberal Senate began to give the Mulroney government a hard time. The following year the Senate Liberals delayed contentious legislation including the Patent Act (to which they only consented to after the lapse of a year and at the urging of Liberal Leader John Turner), a copyright bill, and most significant of all, the legislation that would implement the Canada-US Free Trade Agreement. The latter was delayed until after the 1988 election could be held. With the government re-elected the Senate proceeded to enact the bill.
Brian Mulroney used special
constitutional clause to appoint
eight Senators to gain Senate
But conflict between the two chambers continued. The Liberal Senate delayed changes to unemployment insurance and appeared to be headed to doing the same thing with the GST when, in the autumn of 1990, Brian Mulroney invoked s. 26 of the Constitution Act, 1867 appointing eight additional senators giving him a Senate majority. Despite efforts at filibuster by the Liberals, the Tories gained control of the chamber and were then able to get their legislation passed expeditiously.
Not surprisingly, conflict was renewed when the Chrétien Liberal government elected in 1993 confronted a PC Senate majority. The Tory Senate gave the government a hard time in particular over its cancellation of the previous government's initiative to privatize Toronto`s Pearson airport (not a popular cause but the PC party had been eclipsed when reduced to two seats in the 1993 election).

Fast forward another decade and there was another reversal of roles. In 2007 the Liberal controlled Senate refused to enact Stephen Harper's original senate reform legislation (it had been initiated by the government in the Senate) unless the PM referred the issue to the Supreme Court (See here and here). So the partisan conflict that started in the eighties continued apace into the 21st century. Both Liberals and Conservatives bear a share of the responsibility for the evolution of the Senate into a more partisan institution.
The role of public opinion
We now live in a world where opinion polls and social media permit an opposition-controlled Senate to gauge public opinion and strike when opportunity presents itself. The Senate does not have the political legitimacy that comes from election. However, if an opposition controlled Senate plays its hand shrewdly by taking popular stands (or even unpopular ones if they are on issues below the public`s radar) it can ignore its institutional lack of moral authority. The political convention that says that the elected House of Commons should take precedence over the appointed Senate has been weakened by the last few decades of growing partisanship and a heightened ideological divide.

Federalism and the Senate

It is worth remembering that conceptions of federalism were in their infancy in 1867. The only other federal regime was in the United States and its system had resulted in a civil war that had just ended. Most of the attention and focus in Confederation was on the national government. That helps explain the importance assigned to regional representation within parliament. No one could foresee the development of the strong provincial governments delivering a myriad of services that we have now. However, it is precisely the effective evolution of the 1867 division of powers that makes the Senate unnecessary today. As it is there exists considerable regional influence and representation within national party caucuses within the House of Commons. The Senate, given the difficulty of abolition, is nevertheless likely to remain with us.

Justin Trudeau's proposal

Overall, Justin Trudeau's proposal has positive potential, especially given the descent of the Senate's reputation and its recent history. If the NDP were to form a majority government in the next election one might imagine clashes with the Senate growing in intensity, particularly given the NDP's pledge to abolish the institution. Although one won`t likely hear it from the NDP, from its own perspective, Justin Trudeau's proposal makes sense, particularly if an NDP government found itself obligated to appoint Senators (a possibility).

However, there are a the number of steps needed to flesh out his proposal. One of the first things Trudeau should do is to restate in strong terms the convention that the Senate must not defy the expressed will of the House of Commons on matters of principle. Sober second thought should apply to drafting errors, or flaws that might, for example, produce unintended consequences, not to legislative initiatives that clearly reflect the express wishes of the government of the day, whether it means proceeding with the GST or killing Pearson airport privatization. The Senate can continue to do useful policy work in its committees.

Although the convention of deference has been mostly sufficient throughout the course of Canadian history, it would make sense to go further and adopt a formal constitutional amendment to limit the Senate's authority. The Constitution Act, 1982 in s. 47 limited the power of the Senate to veto most constitutional amendments. It can only delay them 180 days (not including days when Parliament is prorogued or dissolved). Why not apply that provision to ordinary laws or make it one year and thus similar to the authority of the House of Lords in the U.K? This would require, however, a 7/50 amendment, a difficult thing to achieve.

The Senate has been traditionally organized along party lines for its day to day functioning including appointing the membership of committees, so there is the need for more development of the policies and practices that would be required to make a non-partisan Senate functional. Even if there is non-partisan appointment there are still likely to be groupings of Senators that will arise naturally reflecting common outlooks and interests.

One truly foolish thing Trudeau did was not to consult his party's current Senators for their thoughts on the proposal. No doubt they could have warned of some of the issues that are emerging in commentary now.  There have also been reports that Justin is not happy with the behaviour of Liberal senators after the announcement, another cost of not consulting. The only real benefit was that the announcement was not leaked and thus took everyone by surprise. This column by Robin Sears captures what Trudeau might have done instead without it costing him any of the political benefit he appears to have gained. 
It would also have made sense to await the Supreme Court ruling on Senate reform issues, expected later this year. It might yet include some surprises that the Liberals will need to take into account. The Supreme Court could in its ruling go beyond the literal questions that are before them (think, for example, of the wide scope of the Secession reference ruling).

It will also require some self-discipline on the part of Trudeau, should he become Prime Minister. It is no accident that both Liberal and Conservative administrations at the federal level, and NDP governments provincially, have sought to reward party members with public appointments. Discretionary appointments, generally labelled by the pejorative term patronage, do have some role to play in making a system based on political parties functional.

Although patronage appointment ought not be the route to becoming a legislator, in practice prime ministers have long prized Senate appointments as "the ultimate gift", as former Sun columnist Doug Fisher put it in our documentary.


I am reminded of the lines in this excerpt from the script that closed the film, written and voiced on camera by Keith Morrison (an exceptionally talented journalist and writer):
Last month the Justice Minister said he could see no useful purpose for the Senate at all, to which Brian Mulroney responded, "That's because Crosbie isn't Prime Minister." Anybody familiar with the long and futile history of Senate reform will get a sense of déja vu about the remark. Senate reform has failed largely because of the convenience of the status quo and especially for the prime minister.... 
All this was back in 1985.  It should surprise no one if the question of senate reform/abolition remains with us for some time to come.