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Media Bites: Justin Just Reformed the Senate in the Wrong Direction

01/29/2014 06:20 EST | Updated 03/31/2014 05:59 EDT

As I write this, the Senate of Canada's website currently lists the number of Liberal senators as 32. This, despite the Liberal leader's insistence that there are, in fact, "no Liberal senators," since he's just finished booting them all out of the party.

Justin Trudeau thinks Canada's Senate has become irreparably corrupted through "extreme patronage and partisanship," and is trying to set a good example by opting-out of at least half of that equation, cutting his party's ties to the chamber as part of a preview of the "non-partisan" Senate future that's to come if he gets elected prime minister.

There are basically two ways to engage with this story, one structural, one political.

Structurally, the significance of this move is underwhelming. If there are indeed no longer any "Liberal senators," only 32 free-wheeling free-spirits, then presumably those 32 shouldn't organize into a caucus, appoint leaders and whips, and basically possess an identifiable, coherent, hierarchical hive-mind. In Nebraska, the only U.S. state with a non-partisan legislature, there are none of these things -- but in Trudeau's non-partisan Senate there will.

The Senate's Liberal leader, James Cowan, says he intends to keep his office, as well as his authority over his members, who will meet as a club known as the "Liberal Senate Caucus"  --  which, although distinct from the plain "Liberal Caucus" that will henceforth include only MPs  --  will still be an explicitly partisan clique.

"I'm not a former Liberal. I'm a Liberal and I'm a Liberal senator," he said at a press conference following Trudeau's announcement. Also: "I suspect that not a great deal will change." Most other Liberal senators appear to agree.

The Senate already contains seven independents  --  a mostly unappealing lot that includes the trio of suspendees from the expense account scandal  --  but there's been no indication Cowan's Liberal "independents" have any desire to be grouped in with them. That, after all, would entail a loss of prioritized speaking privileges (ask Elizabeth May how much fun that is), access to the Senate official opposition research budget (which, we learned just this week, is soon set to double), and, of course, the nice salary top-offs a few Liberals receive for holding formal positions in the recognized minority party. If Justin gives Senator Cowan a call, I suspect he'll still pick up the phone.

The political capital to be gained from all this, in turn, rests a great deal on how seriously the media decides to play along. If the facts underlying the phoniness of the Trudeau boot-out become well known, whatever praise the Liberal boss is currently getting for his "boldness" will quickly dissipate, and the whole thing will look like yet another empty PR stunt from a leader already known for valuing style over substance. If the press insists on referring to Liberal "independent" senators as just plain Liberals  --  which they should  --  one presumes the "not a great deal" of change Senator Cowan spoke of will soon be apparent enough to make voters wonder what all the initial fuss was about. If the long-term, practical consequences of Justin's Senate vision become well-known, meanwhile, all the worse.

It's an exceedingly open question if Canadians even want the sort of reformed, "effective" Senate Trudeau's promising amid such great fanfare. The Liberals have never found fault with the core conceit of the Senate, after all, which is to say that it should be an appointed, elitist check on the will of Canada's democratically-elected House of Commons, with provincial representation doled out in grossly unequal, arbitrary fashion.

The climax of the Trudeau improvements (which will only be fully implemented upon his election) will therefore involve little more than Prime Minister Justin delegating his appointment powers to a panel of what he promises will be "experts," who are apparently more qualified to choose legislators than voters, or even the country's elected ruler. Trudeau's claimed to be inspired by the small cadre of bureaucrats, judges, and professors who get to decide who wins the Order of Canada, so I guess if you like the idea of being governed by the political equivalent of the various hacks and snobs who usually win that thing you'll be thrilled -- but I'd also guess you'd be in the minority.

The closer you look at the whole plan, in fact, the closer Trudeau's fix begins to resemble the classic solution in search of a problem. The Canadian Senate's approval rating is not mired in the single digits because its members belong to political parties or because they're not chosen by Canadians of imminent enough prestige; its reputation is lower than dirt because it's fundamentally absurd and offensive for one of the world's leading First World democracies to have a branch of government consisting of 105 unelected, unaccountable nobodies who explicitly exist to veto what John A. MacDonald called the "democratic excesses" of elected representatives.

That grotesque mandate, thankfully, has gone less and less fulfilled in recent decades as senators have descended into passive complacency with the little racket they've got going, and to the extent the Senate is tolerated today, it's because it does nothing and aspires to little greater.

The Trudeau agenda, however, is for a Senate whose members are still appointed and ideological, but liberated from even the mild check of being accountable to a prime minister or party boss. It's a mandate for a Senate that not only continues to exist, but is freer than ever to exercise the sort of meaningful political power decades of taming have successfully -- and thankfully  --  curbed.

"At our best," says Justin in his press release, "Liberals are relentless reformers."

Too bad it's so often in the wrong direction.

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