The wrongdoing of a few senators has many Canadians asking: just what should we do about the place?
Canada’s political leaders are asking themselves the same question, and each are coming up with different answers.
What to do about the Senate has been a theme of Canadian politics for decades. And it remains a completely separate issue from them affair involving the prime minister’s former chief of staff, Nigel Wright, and former Conservative Senator Mike Duffy. But this problem, which continues to dog the Tory government, has only served to focus minds on what the future holds for the Red Chamber.
All parties agree that reform of some kind is needed. The form those changes should take is where the parties disagree.
Liberals are looking for the least amount of reform to the Senate. Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau wants to ensure the selection process is improved without any other major changes, making the nomination of senators a more transparent and less partisan affair. While it might not be bold or visionary, it is probably the most pragmatic reform currently on offer.
The fact of the matter is that any significant reform to the Senate is impractical because of the constitutional wrangling that would be required.
This is the main reason why the Conservative Party, which has campaigned on wholesale reform to the Senate that would require senators be elected and sit for shorter terms than the current lifetime appointment (or at least until they are 75), has dragged its feet on the issue. They are currently awaiting word from the Supreme Court on the government’s ability to unilaterally make changes to the way senators are chosen, a position that allows them to show they are doing something, while knowing that it is likely to come to nothing.
The Supreme Court is unlikely to give the federal government the kind of sweeping powers needed to change the Senate. Even the modest proposals the Conservatives are currently pushing — which would ask provinces to hold senatorial elections to produce nominees a prime minister would then appoint — are limited in scope. If their plan went ahead, it would only rely on the optics of a sitting prime minister refusing to appoint elected senators to force them to go along with voters’ choices, along with the dubious hope that every province would actually hold senatorial elections. None of these stipulations can be enforced. What happens when, say, Quebec refuses to hold senatorial elections or, if they do, a sitting prime minister refuses to nominate a duly elected PQ nominee?
As a nod to how opinions about the Senate have turned sour, Stephen Harper has now invoked the option of abolition as the way to go forward if reform is not possible. That puts him in agreement with Thomas Mulcair and the New Democrats, who have long called for the abolition of the Senate. It also puts them in line with public opinion, which is overwhelmingly in favour of either reform or abolition instead of the status quo.
But the NDP’s position is just as unlikely to come to fruition as the Conservatives’ hope for real reform. Their recent failed motion to withhold funding from the Senate highlighted the problems with their position. If the Senate ceased to be able to function due to a lack of senators or a lack of funding, it would be impossible to get legislation passed as even an unfunded or unpopulated Senate would still be a constitutional and unavoidable part of the governing system.
In the end, the groundswell of support for major reform to the Senate (or for the end of it) does not exist, at least in strong enough terms to get the provinces onside for the necessary constitutional tweaking. What to do with the Senate is unlikely to be a major policy plank or vote-deciding issue in the next election. That does not mean that those who are pushing for reform of some kind are doing so in vain, but until they come up with a plan of how to actually go about transforming the way Canada is governed the issue will remain, as it has for time immemorial, unresolved.
Éric Grenier taps The Pulse of federal and regional politics for Huffington Post Canada readers on most Tuesdays and Fridays. Grenier is the author of ThreeHundredEight.com, covering Canadian politics, polls and electoral projections.